Bakelite, the first completely synthetic plastic, was patented in 1907 by Leo Bakeland and was originally meant to be an insulator for electricity. The real value of Bakelite however, was the ease with which it could be carved into intricate shapes. Bakelite was applied on a variety of products such as radios and was delivered in sheets, blocks, tubes and rods.
Jewelers realized that its lightweight feature was suitable for producing cheap jewelry. Bakelite had its biggest boom in the 1930’s during the Great Depression. Those pieces were generally massive, highly carved items. Due to their scarceness, they are the pieces that command the highest prices today.
When the patent for bakelite expired in 1927, the patent was acquired by the Catalin Corporation in the same year. Catalin jewelry production continued through the 1930s and 40s in abundance. With the introduction of lucite in the 1950s, the production of vintage catalin jewelry effectively ceased.
Much of the “Bakelite jewelry” was made with Catalin instead of Bakelite. Just as many folks refer to facial tissue as Kleenex, vintage polymer cast jewelry is refereed to as Bakelite. (This is known as a generic trademark, or brandnomer, or proprietary eponym.)
Bakelite is a thermoset plastic made out of formaldehyde, phenol and a filler to make the product stronger and cheaper; usually wood, rags, cotton, and sometimes asbestos. Therefore it should not be reworked, it could be very harmful to your health. Because bakelite has filler, once the first layer is destroyed, it is impossible to restore to its original luster. True Bakelite was only made in two varying colors: brown and black. It could only be made in these two colors because of the extreme heat it endured while being cured.
Catalin is also a thermoset plastic made of formaldehyde and phenol with no fillers. Catalin is usually very colorful. Sunlight causes the Catalin to yellow. Most of the original white Catalin has yellowed over time. Catalin also shrinks over time, that is why most of the radios have cracks, and the fiberboard on the back no longer fits.
Bakelite (Catalin) Jewelry
Bakelite jewelry can bring in huge sums of money. Although it was originally sold as penny jewelry, its modest pricing also made it disposable as most was thrown away. This means that little Bakelite jewelry survives today and those that survived are highly sought after.
Identifying real Bakelite jewelry is very difficult because of the large number of forgeries and copies in the market. One way to determine if a piece of Bakelite jewelry is genuine is through the knowledge of the materials and design. The features to look out for include: the depth of colors, the colors at different times, the sound as the piece is tapped gently with a fingernail, and the internal texture of the jewelry. Bakelite makes a clunking sound – especially when two pieces hit each other.
Examine how opaque the item is. If the piece of jewelry is transparent, it is likely to be a Catalin. Hold it against the sunlight or any light at all. If light is able to pass through, then the piece of item is likely to be Catalin and not Bakelite. Because Bakelite is opaque, light will not pass through.
Before any of the following tests are performed you should make sure that the item has no mold marks and no seams. Bakelite was carved not molded, and hard plastic jewelery is molded or seamed together.
The 409 test is the easiest test for the beginner. Wipe the piece of jewelry in an inconspicuous area with a Q-tip loaded with 409. If Bakelite, the Q-tip should turn yellow. This test doesn’t always work on black Bakelite or reworked pieces. Be sure to rinse the piece with water after testing, the ammonia can destroy the finish.
You can also use Simichrome (a metal polishing compound). Load a Q-tip with Simichrome and wipe the piece, and it should come out yellow. This test doesn’t always work on black Bakelite or reworked pieces. Simichrome can also be used to polish your pieces, using a soft flannel cloth.
The friction test is simply done by rubbing the piece until it is warm and smelling the piece. A distinct chemical odor similar to formaldehyde will linger with most genuine Bakelite. This often takes a bit of practice.
Hot Water Test
The hot water test is by far the most accurate, though you must have a good nose and know what formaldehyde smells like. You can just hold the piece under hot running water or you can heat some water in the microwave and dip the piece in the water. Submerge the piece for 15-30 seconds. Immediately smell the piece. If it is Bakelite, it will smell like formaldehyde. This test will work on all pieces no matter the color or if it has been reworked.
There is no modern Bakelite (Catalin) jewelry, except for reworked pieces by various artists made out of vintage Bakelite. Although they still manufacture it for some electronics, Bakelite and Catalin mostly disappeared after WWII. Vintage Bakelite jewelry is lovely, hard to authenticate, and scarce. Because of all these factors, Bakelite jewelry is also collectible.