Bakelite Jewelry or Not?

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.bakelite1

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

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

Catalin

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.

 

Testing Bakelite

 

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.

409 Test
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.

Bakelite or Catalin or Fake?

Simichrome Test
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.

Friction Test
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.

 

Conclusion

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.

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36 Comments:

  1. I never been much of a fan of yellow.. but those old school colors are pretty nice together. Looks great Robin!

    • ccfsm@prodigy.net

      Oh, I love yellow – the ugly mustard version. Love unique, and true bakelite fits that! Glad you like the color combo.

  2. Very interesting, Robin! I’ve not even heard of this before, but I keep hearing the sounds you evoked in my head. Which I love!

    • ccfsm@prodigy.net

      Glad you learned something! Yes, that clunking sound bakelite makes is easy to hear once you know the sound.

  3. Very interesting Robin although some of items and the way it’s describes such as silicon test very interesting. It’s very intriguing to learn .

    Lori English

  4. I’ll never look at old, plastic jewellery the same again, Robin. I’ll be inspecting for seams and rubbing and smelling it. 🙂 It was fascinating to read about this now collectable jewellery. I had no idea.

    • ccfsm@prodigy.net

      Tamuria, love that you identified the elements to be on the hunt for. Some pieces are very valuable, and I hope you find a treasure one day:)

  5. My 100-year-old mother has been a jewelry collector all her life! A lot of what you shared here in the pictures looks familiar to me and I am wondering if she still has some ‘official’ bakelite pieces. The bangles look like things I wore in the 70’s and I still actually have a lot of that jewelry in a drawer somewhere. Fabulous history, although the products do sound toxic from the way you described them. I’m going to investigate this more and see if my mother and I just might have some bakelite jewelry in our collections! Thanks for the interesting read, Robin!

    • ccfsm@prodigy.net

      Oh, I would love to play in your jewelry box! You also have another key factor – provenance. Would be great to get Mom to share what she knows about the pieces – knowing she purchased them years ago would be fantastic. Yes, I believe they may be toxic, but only if cracked – bad stuff is hopefully sealed inside. That would be another good thing to research.

  6. Another use for 409:) I love vintage jewelry. I like things from the 1920’s. Always great to learn new things.

    • ccfsm@prodigy.net

      Don’t we love 409! I frequently get asked “how do I date of piece of jewelry”? If you have had some of the good old stuff – you just know, and sounds like you know:)

  7. this was so interesting to read, Robin. I had heard of Bakelite but honestly had no idea what it was. I loved reading the entire history of this era of jewelry too. It would be a nice collectible to own.

  8. This post reminds me of the Christmas gift my teenage cousin gave me. Her mother was looking on and gasped, ‘Honey Rachel only wears real jewelry’. I assured my cousin that I would wear it because it came from her. Several minutes later my cousin shouted, ‘It is real–it is real plastic’.

    • ccfsm@prodigy.net

      Thanks for sharing! That is one of my most favorite things about jewelry – each piece has a story. And years from now, that old plastic piece will still tell a story!

  9. This was absolutely fascinating. Who knew bakelite was made from formaldehyde and phenol!? I loved the tests to see if it’s the real deal. As to your question: “Bakelite Jewelry or Not?” my answer is a resounding YES!

    • ccfsm@prodigy.net

      Totally love your response – Yes! It seems all are surprised about what the items are made of. Makes me wonder what other vintage items are made of??

  10. I’ve heard of Bakelite jewelry many times but didn’t know the real definition of it or its back story, which is both intriguing and horrifying. 😉 I didn’t realize that Bakelite (or Catalin as I’m learning from you know) was made of such toxic ingredients! Hopefully it is strong because I’m sure some of the pieces that were tossed are in a landfill somewhere. Forgetting about the toxicity for a moment, I love plastic jewelry! It has its place in our history and in my wardrobe. 🙂 Love reading your blog posts!

    • ccfsm@prodigy.net

      Meghan, thanks for the kind words. It is interesting to learn of the toxicity, and makes me wonder what other old items might be made of??? Will have to put that on my research list!

  11. I have never heard of Bakelite jewelry Robin……thanks for the wonderful post on what it is and what how it is made into jewelry 🙂 I do not think I have ever seen a piece anywhere, so yes would think that they would be awesome collectibles as they are indeed rare 🙂 Great share!

  12. ccfsm@prodigy.net

    Joan, thanks for the kind words. So glad you learned something, and I hope you find some bakelite!

  13. How cool is that? I knew about phones made of Bakelite — waaaaay before my time, of course! — but was not aware they made jewelry from it, too. Thanks for the interesting lesson.

  14. Learn something new every time with your articles. 🙂 Had no clue about the story of Bakelite…cool.

  15. Very interesting! I would love to see some vintage Bakelite jewelry up close to see first hand what you are describing!

  16. This is great information. I am sure I have seen this Bakelite before though I do not have a vivid memory of it. I did not even know there is a distinct name for it. All the while I perceived them as a plastic jewelry. But, I am glad to read thsis artiale just in case i find some other areas.

  17. How fascinating. My grandmother had some pieces she used to call Bakelite. I wonder now if they truly were the real thing or if she was using the brandnomer as you suggested. I guess we’ll never know, but I’m hoping if it was real that it wasn’t thrown away or donated!

  18. Either way, it was some great old jewelry! Wouldn’t you love to have it now?

  19. I’ve never heard of this before. Fascinating. I’m not a fan of yellow colored jewelry but you make everything beautiful.

  20. When I used to sell vintage items in my past I would come across Bakelite from time to time. It is actually quite nice and amazingly was quite collectible for some. I loved the jewelry that was made more recently used repurposed Bakelite.

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