Bakelite Jewelry Is An Old Trend With A New Sustainable Angle

Mark Davis is championing this historic plastic.

Mark Davis bakelite
Mark Davis

In an industry so often saturated with newness, it’s refreshing to acquaint oneself with a veteran like Mark Davis. The native New Yorker who recently relocated to picturesque Beaufort, South Carolina has been running his namesake luxury jewelry brand since 1999. His star material? Vintage Bakelite. Davis designs with the colorful plastic alongside gemstones, gold, and wood to create his collection of exquisitely crafted upcycled Bakelite jewelry — an elegant approach to sustainability, as you’ll soon learn.

If you’re not familiar, Bakelite is the first synthetic plastic compound created by the controlled reaction of methanal and phenol, with fillers and pigments added for color and opacity. It was named a National Historic Chemical Landmark in 1993 and Davis explains that it’s a remarkable material for several reasons. “Prior to Bakelite’s invention in 1907, all materials known to man fit into three ‘kingdoms’ — animal, vegetable or mineral,” Davis says. “The invention of Bakelite heralded the dawn of the ‘fourth kingdom.’ Never before had a completely man-made synthetic material been created.” He goes on to share that the development of Bakelite changed the planet and the future of mankind. “Not all of the changes have been good. Some of the remarkable qualities of Bakelite have become liabilities over time,” he says. "The material cannot be recycled or melted. It is forever.”

Courtesy of Mark Davis Studio

Davis’ own history as a designer begins in the most archetypal Manhattan of ways — at Barney’s. In 1999, Davis began to develop his collection in his living room and presented it to a buyer at Barney’s, who in turn told him it was too edgy for the retailer. “Too edgy for Barneys?!,” he exclaims. He circumvented the buyer and asked a friend who was close to Narciso Rodriguez to reach out to the iconic designer. “I met with Narciso and he called Julie Gilhart, who was the Fashion Director at Barneys then. I met with Julie and my first order was written,” Davis says. “The rest is history and the lesson learned was not to take ‘no’ for an answer and not to be dissuaded because a buyer thinks they know better.”

During the beginning stages of his business, Davis worked with fine materials like gold, platinum, diamonds, and gemstones. “After 9/11, jewelry sales took a hit and I was asked by one of my retailers to create pieces with more volume at a lower price point,” he shares. After experimenting with wood, acrylic, and Bakelite, he determined the latter would be his new direction. “The Bakelite was the most unique material that offered an incredible range of colors,” Davis says. But it also presented unique challenges. "At that time, the known processes of working with the material had not really changed since the 1930s. But through trial and error, we developed completely new ways to work with [it], which has resulted in modern Bakelite pieces that look very different from what people expect when they think of vintage Bakelite.”

Courtesy of Mark Davis Studio

So what do people expect from vintage Bakelite? After its invention, the plastic was used for just about everything from Dominoes sets and billiard balls to telephones and radios. It also had a popular fashion moment during the ‘20s when it was first incorporated into jewelry. It’s been dubbed ‘the materials of a thousand uses,’ but nowadays has mostly been phased out and is considered a collectible. “Andy Warhol had a huge Bakelite collection that was sold by Sotheby’s in 1988. The number of pieces was staggering, and the sale took ten days to complete,” Davis shares.

These collector-worthy pieces of Bakelite, surprisingly enough, are not what Davis is after when he and his team are sourcing the material. “Because of the creative way we harvest material, we avoid competition for highly desirable pieces and generally use what others do not want,” he says. He offers the example of a beloved household game. “We will use vintage Dominoes in our pieces, but unless you are told that Dominoes were used, you cannot tell where the material came from,” Davis says. “For our brand, a key to creating successful upcycled pieces is that the items do not look upcycled. They do not look ‘craftsy' or homespun; they are finely finished and meticulously made. The fact that the material is vintage is secondary.”

Courtesy of Mark Davis Studio

In addition to sourcing the material, producing the pieces is an extensive process. “Creating one-of-a-kind items from vintage pieces and getting as close to perfection as we can is very labor-intensive and expensive,” Davis says. “The tremendous amount of time, attention, and thought that goes into every piece we produce makes them luxuries.”

The brand uses 18-karat gold, platinum, diamonds, and other gemstones as well as wood. The amount of time it takes to finish a piece depends on its complexity, but some can take several weeks; Davis speaks to one specific bangle. “[It] had to be shaped, sanded, and highly polished and then several small Bakelite discs had to be cut to an exact size. Gemstones were bezel-set in gold and then mounted to the small Bakelite discs,” Davis shares. “Those discs were then set in their own 18k bezels and then mounted to the bangle. This piece required an extreme combination of time and skill to create.”

Courtesy of Mark Davis Studio

Craftsmanship aside, Mark Davis also occupies a niche pocket in the world of sustainability. “Our approach to sustainability focuses on transforming something unwanted or discarded into something covetable,” Davis explains. “Minimizing waste is important for the planet but taking waste and turning it into something beautiful, chic, and highly desirable takes sustainability to another level.” While consumption is often driven by novelty and newness, Davis argues that creating new and desirable products by transforming existing items is recycling at its best. “We are not minimizing waste, we are eliminating it.”

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