What is Bakelite? How to Tell a Vintage Bakelite Bangle from Fakelite and Celluloid Jewelry

Bakelite Not Just for Jewelry

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Source
Bakelite Museum, Williton,  UK
Bakelite Museum, Williton, UK | Source

What is Bakelite and the History of Bakelite

Bakelite is an early synthetic plastic developed by Leo Baekeland in 1907. The synthetic plastic is fire resistant and castable. Baekeland was a Belgian chemist who developed the plastic for its heat resistant properties. Bakelite was used commercially in the production of radios and telephones. Besides radios and phones, handles to silverware, buttons, dominoes, dice, poker chips, beads, billiard balls, camera cases and children's toys like the Viewmaster have been produced from Bakelite.

The plastic turned out to be an affordable medium for jewelers to work with and it became a popular choice when designing jewelry in the 1920s, throughout the Depression era, and beyond because if its wide range of colors and light weight.The jewelry was often created by machinists between 1929 and 1941. The names Catalin and Marblette are trade names used for the plastic in jewelry produced during the previous time frame. They differ slightly because of a chemical variation. Both Catalin and Marblette are referred to as Bakelite today. A Catalin piece is opaque and light will shine through it. Light will not pass through Bakelite. Bakelite jewelry is found in the form of pins, bracelets, earrings, necklaces, rings and brooches. Celluloid and lucite were also used to make jewelry similar in style to Bakelite. Bakelite jewelry is heavier than a celluloid or lucite piece. Arpel, Van Kleef and Chanel were some of the famous designers who used Bakelite in production of their designer pieces. However, Bakelite jewelry was often designed to be inexpensive and Sears and Roebuck carried a line of the plastic jewelry. Woolworth and Saks Fifth Avenue also carried it. Bakelite jewelry was so appealing because of the vast array of colors. Green, red, white and brown were popular choices.

Bakelite is highly collectible today because it is still stylish and often the shapes or themes of the vintage jewelry were quite fun. Although Bakelite was affordable during its day, Bakelite is expensive to produce in this day and age. These two facts add to its desirability.

How to Tell Bakelite from "Fakelite"

Bakelite jewelry has become such a popular vintage collectible that many, many fakes have flooded the market. The fakes or what is deemed "Fakelite" in the world of vintage Bakelite can seem very real. So, buyer beware! The fakes are being mass produced in Asia. They are cast or hand carved resin and spotting the difference is tricky. So how do you tell a .99 cent Fakelite from a $999.00 Bakelite?

There are some standard characteristics that point to Bakelite vs. celluloid, lucite or resin. They are:

  • Bakelite is cast. You will never see seems or line from a mold on Bakelite.
  • They make a musical sound when clanked together. This sound is never dull or flat.
  • Hardware is never glued. All hardware including pin backs and clasps will be screwed or riveted to the piece.
  • It is solid and not transparent. Catalin, a plastic similar to Bakelite will allow light to shine through, but Bakelite is solid and no light shines through. However, Catalin is a form of Bakelite and is desirable.
  • Its colors have changed over time. From white to a cream color, turquoise has turned to green, violet is brown and pink has turned to orange.
  • Bakelite may be marbled. The popular "rootbeer" colored Bakelite may have marbling.
  • There is no dust like residue in the carving that cannot be wiped away. Generic or fakelite that is carved might show a dust like trail in the carvings that cannot be wiped off or blown out.
  • The Bakelite jewelry shows its age. Bakelite jewelry takes on a nice patina or smoothness that is attributed to its age. Brighter colors point to a refinished piece or a fake.

The Bakelite Tests

There are several tests to tell if your Bakelite is true. Some tests are actually used commonly by dealers in order to authenticate a piece of Bakelite. One test that I have seen repeatedly described online is the hot pin test. This is a test that should never be used because even though Bakelite will not be pierced by a hot pin other material can be and the pin piercing subtracts from the value of a vintage piece. So throw away the pin and try these tests instead.

  • The hot water test. Run a piece of Bakelite under hot tap water. The heat causes the Bakelite to produce a smell similar to formaldehyde. If the piece is Galaith it will smell like burning milk and if the piece is Celluloid it will smell like camphor. Lucite and acrylic produce no smell at all.
  • Use 409. If you are testing a piece from a dealer be sure to get the dealer's permission before you do this. Wet a cotton swab with a bit of 409 cleaner. Run the cotton swab over the Bakelite piece on an area that cannot be seen when wearing the piece. The cotton swab will come away with a yellowish color on the tip even if the piece itself is not yellow. If the cotton swab shows a different color or a color similar to the piece or even no color at all, it is not Bakelite.
  • The Simichrome test. This is the test that dealers use to verify Bakelite and I have seen Bakelite pieces online that advertise the fact that they have passed the Simichrome test. Simicrome is a chrome cleaner that is available at auto part stores. This is similar to the 409 test. Use a cotton swab and a dab of Simichrome on the backside of a Bakelite piece. The Simichrome is a pink polish and if it changes to yellow, then you have found yourself a piece of Bakelite. Warning: there is some Bakelite that will not pass the Simichrome test. So, it is best to have other options available to you.

Trust your dealer when buying online. Always purchase from a dealer who will immediately answer your questions, who will offer more pictures when you request them and who offers a return policy. Your dealer should accurately describe the Bakelite piece being offered. Look for descriptions of color, wear, scratches, and fasteners. Follow these tips and you will be on your way to collecting authentic vintage Bakelite jewelry in no time at all!

Collecting and Caring for Bakelite Jewelry

Tips for caring for you Bakelite bracelets, pins and other jewelry can be applied to your other celluloid collectible jewelry as well. First of all, you should be aware that Bakelite is an unstable plastic. What does that mean? It means that sunlight, temperature, heat like smoke, and other chemicals like perfume can change the appearance of your Bakelite treasures and even severely damage them. Cracks or severe crazing may occur. Crazing is when the Bakelite jewelry is damaged by an internal crack. It may be one long crack or a series of cracks resembling veins or a web. Keep your Bakelite from being exposed to extreme temperatures like a heater or your air conditioner.

Store all you plastic jewelry like Bakelite wrapped in a soft cloth and placed in a wooden jewelry box. Keeping your Bakelite vintage jewelry in a covered plastic container may further damage it.

Simichrome is used to test Bakelite for authenticity but it is also a great way to polish lucite or Bakelite jewelry. Do not use Simichrome on celluloid! Turtle wax is another product that will restore luster to you Bakelite collection. Follow direction on the package of the product.

A signed piece of Bakelite or one with a logo is usually more desirable. However, you must always take into consideration the age, rarity and quality of the piece. Look for pieces with minimal visible wear like scratches. Finding a piece that has retained its original color is rare and will add to the value.

Many bracelets were carved out of a single color of Bakelite but layers were added to include dots and geometric shapes that added a flair. Some Bakelite bracelets were made on elastic with individual beads and charms pulling the piece together. Other pieces were hinged. These fun pieces can be shaped like dragons or serpents and snapped easily on to a wrist. The most sought after bracelet is the Philadelphia bracelet. The bracelet gets its name from an auction that took place in Philadelphia in the mid 80's. A hinged Philadelphia bracelet is desirable. The Philadelphia pieces are often layered laminate of color including red, yellow and green with shapes glued on to the piece. Pins or brooches can be found in many shapes like cherries, dogs, monkeys, flowers. Egyptian motifs and WW II MacArthur hearts can be found.

Whatever style, color or shape of vintage Bakelite that you decide to collect, be sure to follow these great tips for buying, caring and collecting. Have fun with your Bakelite jewelry and happy hunting!

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