A Lesson in Bakelite

You knew this post was coming, didn’t you? There was ‘A Lesson in Jet‘ and ‘A Lesson in Lucite,’ so, of course I have to cover everyone’s favourite vintage plastic, Bakelite.

Bakelite School Days Brooch http://www.prlog.org

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 Anchor Brooch, sobejeweled

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.

Purple Bakelite Mouse Pin, BakeliteBaby

80s Bakelite Bangles, BanginBangles

How to test for Bakelite:

There are many ways to determine whether your piece is Bakelite:

  1. The weight: Bakelite is much heavier than other vintage plastics such as lucite and celluloid.
  2. The look: Bakelite pieces are cast, therefore they have no seams.
  3. The smell: when hot, Bakelite has a disgusting varnish smell. Also described as carbolic acid or formaldehyde.

Bakelite Brooches, http://www.cowanauctions.com

Methods:

  1. Rubbing method: rub your piece between your thumb and finger until it’s hot. If you smell the varnish smell, it’s Bakelite.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Bakelite Carrot Brooch, Ebay: cpkapty

Value

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.

Bakelite Cherry Necklace, http://www.bettycrafter.com

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.

Collectible Western Bakelite, Ebay: astimegoesbye

Bakelite Hand Brooch, Ebay: cpkapty

Fakelite!

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!

xoxo

Black Dahlia

29 thoughts on “A Lesson in Bakelite

  1. I’ve always wondered how to identify bakelite – this was really useful to me! 🙂

    And I love that cherry necklace too.. I’ve never seen one like that before but I can see why it’s on your list.

  2. I used to collect Bakelite record players. I discovered that some Bakelite pieces contain asbestos. Careful out there! (And you’re right, that smell is awful!)

      • Not a problem. Drop me a line if you find information otherwise. That way I can stop holding my breath around Bakelite players. Ha!

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  11. Recently, I found the 1938 portable Philco bakelite radio that my dad gave my mom over 70 years ago. It is lovely, but smells REALLY bad (kinda like poop). Is it dangerous to handle and can I get rid of the smell? I’d love to take it to a vintage shop and get it fixed if it is not toxic.

    • Hi Jan, thank you for the question. I’m not sure if you can get rid of the smell. I had heard previously that bakelite is toxic, but I’ve not been able to substantiate it.

      Anyone else have an answer?

      X
      BD

  12. Hi

    I have replaced a crack in the bakelite handle of a silverplated teapot. The bakelite is black.

    How do I colour the fixed part to match the rest of the handle please? What can I use?

    Kind regards

    Anna-Ria

  13. In the 1950s Thermos made two sizes of ice bucket in several colours. They are usually advertised on Ebay and elsewhere as being made of Bakelite, but having tried both tests on mine there was no smell of formaldehyde. Perhaps my poor sense of smell is to blame. The colours for the body were dark brown, cream, red and pale blue. The lid knob, side grips and base were in the same colour range but always contrasted the body colour. e.g. a cream base would have either red or dark brown knobs, grips and bases. If it’s not Bakelite does anyone know what it is? For certain it’s a thermoset plastic like Bakelite but I don’t think it’s Lucite.

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