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Bakelite & Vintage Plastics

Bakelite is a synthetic resin chemically formulated and named after its inventor, a Belgian born chemist named Leo Baekeland.  He had previously worked on the product of Velox, a film treatment used by newspaper and from this success he was able to afford to set up his own laboratory in Yonkers, New York in 1901.

For some time Dr. Baekeland worked on durable coatings for the lanes of bowling alleys, and other surfaces requiring protective polyurethane. This developed into his own bakelite corporation around 1910 mainly working in heavy industry and automobile manufacturing. Bakelite could be used for electric insulators or coatings for automotive wiring. It surpassed all previous plastics ever produced because unlike previous plastics it was not flammable. It was also an inexpensive product to make and during a time of economic downturn and then the depression of 1927 it became very popular with the general public.  Initially it was only possible to produce bakelite in the dark brown colour and this went on to become popular in light fittings, radios etc. Because it could be melted and poured into lead molds it was possible to make vases, containers, glasses, musical instruments and a variety of consumer goods.

In the late 1920’s the rights  were bought by a company called Catalin. Manufacturers learned how to process a wide variety of other bakelite colours, and bakelite catalin continued to be popular until the late 1940’s. Artisans who wanted to create jewellery from bakelite would order it in the form of large blocks and used powered grinders to carve out individual pieces.

Eventually bakelite-catalin fell out of favour mainly due to the fact that production of the pieces was very labour intensive.
In the ensuing years many other plastics were produced, and in some cases attempts have been made to emulate the look of bakelite. There is a very specific test which can be carried out to determine whether a piece is actually bakelite or not. It is called the hot pin test. The idea is to locate an inconspicuous area of the object and then apply a heated pin. True bakelite gives off a distinctive odour as it melts very similar to the scent of burnt hair. If the pin melts the object, but no formaldehyde odour is detected, it is more than likely an imitation.

Because bakelite began in the USA many of the collectables these days comes from there. Much of the jewellery that comes from there is colourful, lots of bright bangles with spots and stripes, and carvings etc.

The bakelite from France is more discreet with more elegant and geometric art deco motifs. In Germany bakelite was often used in jewellery alongside other materials such as wood or metal or brass – again a more streamlines austere look.

Nowadays there are many different plastics on the market but the feel of true bakelite is unmistakeable, and there is always the option to test for yourself. If you are in a pre-buying situation it is also possible to rub your fingers over the piece until it is warm, and then smell… even that should be a good indication. If it is bakelite there will be a distinct odor of formaldehyde or carbolic acid. Many, many products in the market, look like bakelite and you may be told it is bakelite, but there are many different plastics on the market, so the old bakelite is not so common. There is quite a lot of fake bakelite coming out of China. Nothing wrong with fakelite as long as you are not paying a bakelite price. 

MORE NOTES ON FAKELITE.  Since the above notes were written, much has happened in the retail world.  The market is awash with the word BAKELITE. There is currently a large amount of fakelite being mass produced in places like India, Taiwan, and China.  BAKELITE IS NOT A TRADE NAME. It is simply the name given to phenolic plastic and it is not owned by any company or trademark. There are fakelite pieces of jewellery around that will give off a distinct odour emulating the original bakelite smell.  It may be called bakelite, but it is not the old bakelite.  Some fake pieces are also being oxidized to give them an aged look.

It comes down to what you want to buy.  There is not anything wrong with the newly made bangles and beads if you like the look, it is not being sold as original bakelite, and you are not paying original bakelite prices!

The reason that the term "bakelite" is used so freely is because it is popular and highly collectable, buit it is not the only collectable vintage plastic out there. If you do want ORIGINAL VINTAGE BAKELITE then screen the piece carefully.Most people can not tell the difference between bakelite and one of the other plastics. The following tests can be carried out, they are useful, but not foolproof :

The 409 test.  Dip a cotton bud into 409 and rub it on the piece preferably on the inside...just a tiny part. If the Q Tip turns yellow,  it is an indication that it is bakelite.

The hot water test - Put the piece under hot water and let it warm up a bit. If it is Bakelite it should have a strong smell, like formaldehyde. If it smells like camphor it is celluloid. If it smells like burnt milk it is Galalith.

The Simichrome test - Simichrome is a chrome cleaner and you can test a piece in the same way as the 409 test. If the cotton bud turns yellow, it is Bakelite.  Make sure you clean the piece thoroughly after testing.

The rub test - This is the most commonly used test as we are often not carrying around 409 or simichrome. Take the piece and rub a spot with your finger warming it up a bit. Then smell, if you smell something chemical, formaldehyde then it is likely to be bakelite.

There is also a test that can be carried out with a hot pin but it is not recommended as it can be damaging to the item.

ALL OF THESE TESTS ARE SUBJECT TO DECEPTION.   The producers of fakelite have become very adept at imitating all of the reactions. So I would suggest a test should be carried out in conjunction with the following :

Take a good look at any piece of bakelite you consider a vintage piece of bakelite.  There will be no mold lines in the piece as Bakelite is seamless.  It should have a bit of weight to it unlike lucite and modern plastics which feel hollow.  If you can hit one piece of bakelite against another you will get a "clunk" sound. Have a good look at the colours, any carving, any hinges...........does it really look as though it has been around for the past 70 - 80 years ????

There is some lovely modern "Bakelite" around......just make sure you are paying the right price.