What is Bakelite?
Bakelite is a castable, fire resistant plastic that was invented by Leo Baekeland in 1909. It was originally used for industrial purposes, until jewelry makers found that its light weight made Bakelite a perfect choice for designing and manufacturing inexpensive bracelets, rings, pins and other jewelry.
Bakelite jewelry became especially popular in the 1930's and 1940's, after a wider assortment of colors was introduced. The new batch of Bakelite colors captured the imagination of more and more jewelry companies. Coco Chanel was one famous designer who offered Bakelite jewelry and accessories.
Please don't ever use the hot pin test to determine Bakelite authenticity, since some older plastics (like celluloid) are flammable and a hot pin can be dangerous to not only the plastic but to you as well, but don't worry. There are many other ways to test Bakelite that are much safer and several of them only require your senses to accomplish. It's good to employ more than one of these tests until you get very comfortable identifying Bakelite.
1. Testing by Sound
Listen for the "clunk" when two pieces of Bakelite are tapped together. This very distinctive sound is often heard when two or more Bakelite bangles are worn at the same time. Try tapping two pieces of another type of plastic together, and compare the sound to two pieces of true Bakelite the next time you're out shopping where Bakelite is on display.
2. Testing by Feel
Consider the weight of a piece of plastic, especially jewelry. Bakelite feels heavier, more dense when compared to other types of plastics. Hold another piece of plastic in one hand, and a piece of Bakelite of approximately the same size in the other. You'll notice the heavier feel of the Bakelite.
3. Testing by Smell
Rub the item in question vigorously with your thumb until you feel the plastic heat up. Then, before it cools, take a whiff. A distinct chemical odor similar to formaldehyde will linger with most genuine Bakelite. This often takes a bit of practice. Some noses find better results when the piece of plastic is placed under hot running tap water before sniffing it. This test works well with Bakelite bangle bracelets.
4. Testing by Sight - Inspect the Piece Closely
Look for wear scratches and patina that new pieces of plastic don't normally exhibit. Also look for tiny chips on the edges of carving. Examine the piece with a jeweler's loupe or another type of magnifyer, if needed. Generally, an old piece of Bakelite will not be free of some minor scratching and wear, even though it is in excellent condition by a collector's standards.
5. Testing by Sight - Using Simichrome Polish
Simichrome Polish is a non-abrasive cream used to clean metals. You can also use it to test Bakelite for authenticity. Sparingly apply to a soft cloth and gently rub a small spot on the inside or back of the item being tested. If it's Bakelite, the cloth should turn yellow with ease. If a piece is laquered, it may test negative. Black Bakelite pieces often fail this test as well. Use the other tests above to confirm authenticity if a piece you suspect to be Bakelite fails with Simichrome.
6. Testing by Sight - Using Formula 409 Cleaner
Scrubbing Bubbles was once the standard cleaner to use for Bakelite testing, but experts now recommend Formula 409 instead. To use, dampen a cotton swab with 409 and rub it gently on the inside of the item being tested. If it's Bakelite, the swab will turn yellow. If a piece is laquered, it may test negative with 409. Black Bakelite pieces often fail this test as well. Use the other tests above to confirm authenticity if a piece you suspect to be Bakelite fails with 409.
Courtesty of Pamela Wiggins.