In 1984, a so-called "Philadelphia" Bakelite bracelet–a hinged style with multicolored wedges on top–sold for $250. The same bracelets now bring over $4,000. Relatively common Bakelite bangles and pins which brought only $10-$50 in the mid-1990s, are now priced at $50-$300.
As prices have risen, so has the tendency for sellers, either through lack of knowledge or deliberate intent, to call any piece of plastic, "Bakelite." Reproductions are now common and there has been a steady increase in reworked and "married" pieces.
This article will explain how originals were made, the simple tests anyone can use to separate genuine Bakelite from look-alike, and the common warning signs of new, fake and reproduction pieces.
What is Bakelite?
Bakelite is a trade name taken from its inventor, Leo Baekeland, who invented Bakelite in 1907. Bakelite is made from carbolic acid (phenol) and formaldehyde and is referred to as a phenolic resin. Bakelite was the first thermosetting plastic. That means once a Bakelite product is formed, it will not change shape or melt under heat. Plastics formed from other formulas can be reshaped after reheating or will burst into flame if reheated.
Bakelite was first used as insulators against heat and electricity. As ways were found to manufacture Bakelite in bright colors, it began to be used for all sorts of decorative objects, especially jewelry.
Although Bakelite was the trade name of the first thermosetting phenolic resin, it was not the only one. Other important trade or brand names include Catalin, Marblette, Prystal, Phenolia and a number of others. Since brand names rarely appear on the products, collectors generally use "Bakelite" to refer to all of the thermosetting phenolic resins, not just to the Bakelite brand products and that's how we'll use the term. Throughout this article, "Bakelite" will refer to all phenolic resin pieces regardless of their original brand name.
How Bakelite was Made
One of the keys to identifying original Bakelite is to understand how it was manufactured. Modern hard plastics which are often confused with Bakelite, were generally produced by injecting or pouring a liquid resin into a mold which produced the final product. In other words, to get a dog pin, you'd pour plastic into a dog-shaped mold. The mold would create all the details of the finished product such as fur, eyes, collar, etc. When the mold was opened, the final piece was essentially ready for sale.
Bakelite was very rarely molded into individual pieces of finished jewelry. The great majority of Bakelite jewelry was made by hand from stock shapes of raw material. Bakelite's unique properties lent itself to extrusion casting. If you wanted to make bracelets, for example, you'd extrude a long tube with the rough shape (Fig. 4) preformed. Workers would then slice off various widths from the tube, decorate, and polish them by hand. The buckles in Fig. 5 were sliced from tubes extruded with the buckle shapes preformed. Because decorating was done by hand, special designs and small custom orders could easily be made without the overhead of expensive molds required by hard plastics. Anyone could buy the raw Bakelite material and small studios and amateurs could afford to experiment with their own jewelry designs.
Tests for Genuine Bakelite
Unlike other plastics, authentic Bakelite oxidizes over the years developing a patina which changes the surface color. Exposure to sunlight, body fluids, cosmetics and other factors contribute to patinas and color changes associated with normal age and wear. An example of typical color change is shown in Fig. 6
Normal oxidation provides a valuable clue whether a suspected piece is true Bakelite (phenolic resin) or a look-alike material. All true Bakelite, regardless of surface color (Figs. 7-8), will leave an ivory or pale yellow smear on a cotton swab wetted with one of several common products: the cleaning fluids "409" and "Scrubbing Bubbles" and "Simichrome Polish". Look-alike materials such as modern hard plastics, will not leave any color on the swab or will leave a smear the same the color as the plastic (blue plastic will leave a blue smear, etc.).
All the testing products cause eye and skin irritation and should be used carefully; rubber gloves are recommended. Use a tiny amount of material; it doesn't take much. Apply to a small, hidden area such as the back side of a pin or inside of a bracelet. Scrubbing Bubbles can dull the original finish; Simichrome will leave the tested area with a higher shine; 409 leave the surface virtually unchanged and is the best choice.
Most non-Bakelite products are not affected by the products, but you should always be careful and carefully wash and wipe dry all tested areas to prevent any possible long-term changes.
The swab test is effective on virtually all Bakelite. The most common exceptions are pieces of genuine Bakelite that have recently been completely polished or cleaned and the original patina has been removed. Certain colors, particularly black and some reds, can also occasionally give confusing results.
Another easy, simple test is to place a suspected piece under hot water from your household faucet. Hold the piece so an edge is in the middle of the flow. After 20-30 seconds, quickly hold the piece up to your nose. The vast majority of genuine Bakelite gives off a strong phenol odor similar to paint remover or varnish. Modern plastics and other look-alike materials do not produce any odor when held under hot water produced by the average household hot water heater.
Once you determine a piece is made from genuine Bakelite, it doesn't mean you have proved the piece is necessarily old. There is a surprising amount of original unfinished Bakelite stock that has survived. This old but never-used stock, can be carved today (Fig. 17) and offered as vintage Bakelite. Genuine vintage jewelry that is plain and low value, is frequently carved into more desirable and higher priced designs. Old stock and carved pieces will both pass the swab and hot water tests because the pieces are genuine Bakelite.
One way to confirm age is to carefully examine the findings, or hardware, such as pins, hinges, etc. Findings on genuine vintage Bakelite jewelry are generally attached with mechanical fasteners such as tiny screws, pins and nails. Findings in modern plastic are typically cast into the jewelry as it is being poured or glued on later. Original metal findings almost always shows some tarnish or even rust. Beware of shiny hardware with no sign of normal age or wear.
Since genuine Bakelite produces a patina, outer surfaces on truly vintage pieces should normally be darker than protected inner surfaces. Insides of bracelets, for example, should be lighter in color than the exposed outer surfaces. Backs of pins and earrings should also be lighter than exposed outer surfaces.
Virtually all authentic Bakelite jewelry was hand machined or carved and should show some tool marks. Vintage tool marks are, however, at the very least, tumbled and rounded off, never jagged or sharp. Grinding marks with a frosted, chalky appearance are typical signs of recent carving.
Tool marks should also be logical. An original carver, working by the hour or piece-rate, would spend more time finishing exposed surfaces rather than finishing hidden surfaces that were not exposed. Tool marks in hidden areas are more obvious than marks on exposed surfaces. Surfaces of reworked or newly carved pieces are sometimes completely polished on all sides, regardless if the surface is exposed or hidden.
Warnings signs of typical reproductions, copies and look-alike Bakelite are shown at the top of the next page. One of the more obvious signs that a piece could not possibly be a piece of Bakelite is a mold seam. Authentic Bakelite, made piece by piece with hand finishing, never has a mold seam. Modern hard plastics produced in a mold, virtually always have a mold seam (Fig. 19)
Features of Typical Vintage Bakelite Jewelry
Warning Signs of Look-alike, Copies and Reproductions
Glued hardware is a also a sign of modern pieces, or at the very least, a repair. New pins are commonly glued to inexpensive Bakelite clothing buttons to make a piece of "jewelry." Remember, even if a piece passes the cotton swab test, it doesn't mean the hardware is original.
No original Bakelite will warp or bend under heat or exposure to moisture. Any warped or distorted piece (Fig. 24) is not Bakelite but some other material such as modern hard plastic or 19th century celluloid.
Brightly colored vintage Bakelite was used for many items other than jewelry. Some of those items include napkin rings, pencil sharpeners and handles on a vast assortment of kitchen flatware, gadgets and tools. The same tests described in this article for Bakelite jewelry also apply to these other objects. When testing Bakelite, always use safe, nondestructive tests like those described in this article. Always ask the seller's permission before making any tests.