Bakelite (a.k.a. catalin and durez) is a colourful thermoplastic created in 1908-09 by Leo H. Baekeland. Baekeland accidentally created this material while trying to create a new type of varnish, which explains the tell-tale ‘Bakelite smell.’ In the 1920s, Bakelite started to be used for making jewellery and became very popular in novelty jewellery in the 1940s/50s.
Bakelite jewellery is always cast and often carved, reversed-carved, painted or laminated. It was utilized to make all kinds of pieces including brooches, rings, bangles, necklaces, dress clips, etc. Bakelite comes in a variety of colours: black, red, yellow, green, butterscotch, apple juice, orange, etc. The rarest Bakelite colours are purple and blue.
How to test for Bakelite:
There are many ways to determine whether your piece is Bakelite:
- The weight: Bakelite is much heavier than other vintage plastics such as lucite and celluloid.
- The look: Bakelite pieces are cast, therefore they have no seams.
- The smell: when hot, Bakelite has a disgusting varnish smell. Also described as carbolic acid or formaldehyde.
- Rubbing method: rub your piece between your thumb and finger until it’s hot. If you smell the varnish smell, it’s Bakelite.
- Hot water test: put your piece under hot water and then give it a sniff. Again, if it has the tell-tale varnish odour, it’s Bakelite.
- Hot pin test: heat the tip of a pin and try to stick it through your piece (preferably on the back or underside). If the pin easily goes through, it’s not Bakelite. I never use this method as it can damage your piece, whether it’s Bakelite or not.
- Cleaner tests: put some simichrome polish or 409 cleaner on a cotton swab and wipe your piece. If the cotton turns yellow, it’s Bakelite.
Due to a resurgence in popularity in the past twenty years, Bakelite prices have sky-rocketed. The value of the piece depends on the uniqueness, colour and rarity. Novelty Bakelite pieces with fruit, elaborately carved or painted pieces seem to fetch a higher price. I see this myself, as I’ve been longing to own a Bakelite cherry necklace for many, many years. I can’t afford one at this time, so I make my own version out of glass.
Just note, not all Bakelite pieces are valuable and worth paying high prices for. Someone should inform online dealers of this fact! ;0 You can find reasonably priced spacer and stacker bangles at flea markets, antique stores and online.
Fakelite is any vintage or new plastic that one is passing off as Bakelite. If often resembles Bakelite and sometimes is coloured Lucite. It will fail the Bakelite tests, so do be sure to test your items. For me, I don’t care if it’s Bakelite or not, as long as I love the particular item. However, I am wary of paying Bakelite prices for fakelite!