Britt Aamodt

Working in a Hot Medium: Bakelite

Working in a Hot Medium: Bakelite | Media List


Statement

7/1/2008

Like vintage Bakelite jewelry, Weeks’s pieces tend to the whimsical. She designed this series of colorful pins for her husband.
Over 70 hours went into making this multicolored Bakelite and aluminum necklace. Weeks made a copy of the necklace for a customer, although typically she only makes one of each design. (All photos by Britt Aamodt)
Working in a hot medium B A K E L I T E

By Britt Aamodt

HOPKINS, MINN. - It was called the plastic of a thousand uses. A compound of phenol and formaldehyde, Bakelite was one of those accidents of invention that revolutionized American industry and garnered its creator, Dr. Leo Baekeland, a slot on Time magazine's list of the most important people of the 20th century.

Yet for Jackie Weeks, a modern-day Bakelite carver and jeweler, Bakelite has always been about the color.

"I became interested in Bakelite jewelry because the colors were so great," says Weeks, who started out selling antique furniture before transitioning to jewelry and her shop with Ann Eliason in Hopkins, Ann & Jack's Vintage Jewelry. "You could put a red, yellow and green bracelet together, no carving on them, and they would look eye-catching."

Though Bakelite production in America ceased after World War II, fans started a craze for the brightly hued plastic, which had gone into everything from radio clocks to napkin holders, cheerful salt and pepper shakers and, of course, jewelry. Pop artist Andy Warhol allegedly needed several warehouses to store his collection.

As interest in Bakelite grew, so too did the price.

"It was nuts," says Weeks. "I'd find a great jewelry piece for nothing and then turn around and sell it for $600. I wanted to acquire some of those pieces for myself, but I didn't want to pay the prices."

So, she and friend Rachel Costello decided to learn how to create their own Bakelite jewelry. That was ten years ago.

"We'd get a bottle of Scotch, and after finishing a piece, we'd sit and have a drink," recalls Weeks. "It was a lot of trial and error in the beginning. You have to be willing to ruin a lot of Bakelite before you figure out what you're doing."

In the early days, Weeks would rummage antiques shops for '40s- and '50s-era trophies with Bakelite bases and for Bakelite dice, bracelets and other odds and ends she could reform with her tools into carved bracelets, charms, pins, pendants and rings.

To do this, she needed to start with large Bakelite chunks, but finding pieces large enough was tricky. Then a friend introduced her to a woman in upstate New York.

The woman, whom Weeks has been asked not to identify, had acquired a truckload of Bakelite from one of the original plants, and she was willing to sell some of it to Weeks and Costello. So the two women, accompanied by Weeks' mother, made a road trip.

"She had this semi parked out in the middle of nowhere. I don't think I could find it again if I wanted to. I bet she had a million dollars in there. Floor to ceiling Bakelite. Rods, dice, bracelet holders, backgammon pieces. I was speechless."

The women hit pay dirt, sometimes even scrabbling in the grass to rake up small Bakelite cubes that had fallen from the semi.

Weeks purchased $5,000 worth and returned a second time for more, adding up to a lifetime supply of Bakelite that Weeks, one of only a handful of Bakelite carvers in the nation, has begun to saw, carve, file, sand, glue and paint into pieces every bit as whimsical and eye-popping as their vintage cousins.

She'll spend 50 to 80 hours on a single bracelet, shaping a chunk and then using a small electric-powered drill to reverse-carve the underside into frolicking dogs or flowers or pumpkins for a Halloween-themed bracelet.

A master carver, Weeks is able to take a chunk of Bakelite and form it into whatever shape she chooses, from fruits and vegetables to baseball mitts and fishing lures.

Her prices range between $150 for a carved bangle to $500 for an elaborately strung Bakelite and aluminum necklace. In comparison, other carvers have commanded prices in the thousands.

"It's never been about the money," says Weeks. "The thrill is to make something and have someone really love it."

Cover: Weeks creates the reverse-carved images on these bracelets by drilling into the underside and then daubing paint in the cramped spaces. Her bracelets sell between $150 and $300.

Britt Aamodt is a full-time marketing and freelance writer living in Minneapolis who gets her best ideas while sitting over coffee at her local coffee shop.

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