Bakelite is a castable plastic that became popular in the early 1900s. It was first used for industrial purposes such as in the manufacture of radios. It was later discovered by jewelers for its lightweight characteristic, which is ideal for making inexpensive jewelry, bracelets and rings. It came into the limelight after various colors of Bakelite were introduced in the market. One of the famous designers who made use of this is Coco Chanel.
If you want to buy Bakelite jewelry or would like to verify an existing piece, follow these simple guides in identifying a Bakelite:
- Check the weight. Other plastics are also used that may resemble Bakelite, such as Celluloid and Lucite. You should therefore be careful in buying what appears to be Bakelite jewelry, because it may turn out to be of a different kind. Bakelite is heavier compared to a Celluloid or Lucite of the same size.
- Opacity. It is also probable that what you are holding is a Catalin and not Bakelite. What you need to do is hold it up to the sun or any light source. If you notice light passing through, then you are sure that what you are holding is not Bakelite and it could be a Catalin. Bakelite is opaque and it should not allow light to pass through it.
- Seams. See if the jewelry you are holding has some seams or mold marks. A genuine Bakelite will not have these marks. So, if you notice your jewelry to have these signs, then you are not holding a true Bakelite.
- Sound. If you are holding two pieces of what seem to be a Bakelite, tap them together. You must hear a distinct clunking sound to confirm that it is indeed Bakelite.
- 409 test. This is the easiest means of determining Bakelite jewelry. However, this may cause damage, so try this method on the inside portion of the jewelry or bracelet. Place some 409 on a q-tip and rub it against the jewelry you’re not sure of. The q-tip will turn bright yellow if it is Bakelite. If it turns brown, please check the jewelry for dirt, because that could be the reason for the color. After doing this test, make sure that you wipe off or clean the 409 solution.
- Friction test. When you are outside or in a flea market and there’s no way for you to test the jewelry, this method may come handy. What you need to do is rub the jewelry until your skin or thumb feels hot and then smell it. A genuine Bakelite piece will result in a formaldehyde smell. Run hot tap water on the piece of jewelry or bracelet for some minutes, and afterwards you may check for the formaldehyde smell. If you didn’t smell it the first time, repeat the procedure, and if there is still no formaldehyde smell after the second test, then you could conclude that you are not holding Bakelite.
Note that no single one of these tests is conclusive to show that you are holding genuine Bakelite jewelry. What you need to do is perform some of the other tests described above in order to be sure that indeed it is a Bakelite jewelry or bracelet.