The History of
Bakelite & Catalin and How to Test for Authenticity
Jewelry has become a hot collecting area in the last several
decades. How do you know if the piece that you recently
purchased is the genuine item or a fake reproduction or
"fakelite," also currently being offered in
large numbers online and at flea markets? I'll do my best
to take some of the mystery out of this popular subject,
since knowing how to test for bakelite will help you to
also date your jewelry.
Before I comment on the testing
for bakelite content, I'd like to give you a short history
of the early depression material, which details the differences
between the two materials commonly referred to as bakelite.
History of Bakelite
The words "bakelite" and "catalin"
are often used interchangeably. However, they are actually
two different materials. Both are thermoset plastics made
from formaldehyde. The differences between the two are
in the fillers used, origin of manufacture, the opaqueness,
and the colors available. Most bakelite jewelry that you
see for sale is actually catalin.
This thermoset plastic made from phenol formaldehyde has
fillers to make it more durable, stronger and less expensive.
The filler could be rags, cotton, wood, carbon black -
even asbestos. Because of this, reworking the product
can make it harmful to your health. By and large, bakelite
is very opaque. True bakelite colors are normally very
dark because of the fillers.
Bakelite is a US manufactured product, patented in 1907
by a Belgian chemist, Dr. Leo Hendrik Baekeland, working
in New York. Most early uses of Bakelite were radios,
handles for pots and pans, castings for televisions, toys,
etc. Some was even used in coffins! Bakelite was manufactured
between 1907 and 1927.
Catalin is a thermoset plastic made from either phenol,
melamine or urea formaldehyde, that normally has no fillers.
It can be reworked and is usually very colorful. Catalin
is also very translucent. Sunlight causes catalin to lighten
over time. Catalin is also subject to shrinkage.
When the patent for bakelite
expired in 1927, the patent was acquired by the Catalin
Corporation in the same year. The Catalin Corporation
is thought to be responsible for nearly 70% of the phenol
resins available today - thus the statement that most
bakelite jewelry sold is actually catalin. Catalin jewelry
production continued through the 1930s and 40s in abundance.
With the introduction of lucite in the 1950s, the production
of vintage catalin jewelry effectively ceased in the 1960s,
although it is still possible to get reworked pieces which
were manufactured much later than this date.
Testing of bakelite
One of the easiest ways to test for the difference between
the two materials is to hold them up to a very strong
light. Light will not pass through bakelite since it is
opaque, but will filter through the more translucent catalin.
Even black catalin allows some light to pass through it.
for actual bakelite or catalin content
are many different tests used to test for bakelite/catalin
- including the hot water test, the friction test, the
scrubbing bubbles test (not recommended, since Scrubbing
Bubbles is caustic and will strip the finish of the jewelry),
the 409 test, and the Simichrome polish test. None are
conclusive on their own. Once you have some experience
with the product, you will get a very good feel for it
by just sight. Bakelite and catalin have a very distinctive
look to them.
- Far East Bakelite - Fakelite
This is not considered true bakelite by vintage jewelry
collectors. I have seen a great deal of French bakelite
for sale on auction sites such as ebay. The pieces are
lovely, with highly carved designs and vibrant colors.
They sometimes fetch high prices.
However, this type of jewelry
is neither bakelite or vintage. It is mass produced, newly
manufactured plastic fashion jewelry with little or no
collector value. The same is true of the mass produced
items labeled as bakelite from the far east. If there
is a lot of it for sale, you can be sure that it isn't
true bakelite, which is very hard to come by. I buy estate
jewelry collections all the time, and rarely find genuine
bakelite pieces in the estates. Also, French bakelite
will not pass the bakelite tests outlined on this page.
As bakelite prices have risen,
this "Fakelite" has appeared on the market.
Although some of the sellers of Fakelite insist that it
will pass chemical testing, none of it successfully passes
hot water testing. Fakelite smells "wrong" (unlike
bakelite) when tested with hot water
This is the easiest test for the beginner. Lightly dampen
a Q tip swab in 409 cleaning solution and rub it gently
on an inconspicuous area of the jewelry piece. If the
material is bakelite it will turn the Q tip bright yellow.
(not brown - brown is just dirt.) The 409 should be thoroughly
rinsed off, since it could damage the finish of the piece.
This test is a good indication that the jewelry tested
is bakelite, but not absolutely conclusive. It should
be combined with the hot water and smell test described
Dow bathroom cleaner - popularly known as scrubbing bubbles
used to be widely used for testing of bakelite jewelry.
Vintage Lane does not recommend that you use this method,
since the product is very caustic and has been known to
strip the finish from the jewelry piece.
This is similar to the 409 test, except that you use a
polish called Simichrome Polish, which is available online
or at most hardware stores. This test is a little more
expensive, since Simichrome is more expensive than 409.
Put the polish on a soft cloth and wipe over the jewelry
to be tested. Once again, it should result in a bright
yellow area on the cloth. Simichrome doesn't have to be
rinsed off, and it can be used to polish the whole piece
of jewelry. Not a conclusive test, especially on reworked
catalin, but fairly conclusive in combination with the
hot water test.
This test is very accurate, but requires some experience,
since one needs to know what formaldehyde actually smells
like. Run the water in your tap (or heat it in the microwave
oven) until it is very hot and hold the jewelry piece
in it for 15-30 seconds. Immediately smell the article.
If it is bakelite or catalin it will have the distinctive
smell of formaldehyde. A burnt milk smell indicates French
Bakelite, and a camphor smell indicates Celluloid - another
early vintage plastic.
A lot of the reworked catalin
pieces will not respond to the Simichrome polish or 409
tests, but should respond to the hot water test. It is
still possible to get a false positive to this test, if
the piece is newly polished, carved or highly dirty. Also,
be very careful of the water on the findings, since the
water can loosen glue. Always dry thoroughly.
This is similar to the hot water test, but is helpful
when there is no hot water available, such as time when
you are at a flea market or other sales venue. You simply
rub the jewelry piece until your thumb feels very hot
and then smell it. It will give off the distinctive formaldehyde
Hot Pin Test
I strongly discourage this method of testing, since it
requires that you actually damage the piece of jewelry
which will devalue it greatly. It requires heating a pin
tip until it is red and then touching it to the bakelite/catalin
object. The characteristics of true bakelite or catalin
insure that the piece will not melt, so a pin cannot pierce
it. The heat of the pin will, however, cause a dark spot
to remain on the jewelry piece, which cannot be removed.
of True Bakelite or Catalin
Bakelite/Catalin jewelry will never have seams or mold
lines. White jewelry is a good giveaway that it is not
bakelite or catalin, since both have a yellowish patina
which develops over time. A chalky finish which looks
like dust and will not wash away is never found on the
true product. (This is a good indicator of a newer material
referred to as "fakelite.") Finally, true bakelite
pieces will have a distinctive clunking sound when tapped
As indicated above, no one
test is totally conclusive for guaranteeing that your
jewelry piece is true bakelite or catalin. When used in
combination with all of the other tests, a positive test
on each can help you to feel fairly certain that you really
do have a collectible piece of vintage bakelite or catalin
notes on testing methods
Not all jewelry pieces which actually are Bakelite will
pass these tests. This includes pieces which are very
dirty, pieces which have previously had their finish stripped
with chemical test agents such as Scrubbing Bubbles, some
reds, many blacks, and jewelry pieces which have a coating
which is resin washed. Pieces which have been covered
with a plastic sealant compound, and jewelry pieces which
have been sanded will not pass the test. And finally,
newly re-worked pieces made from Bakelite and freshly
polished pieces may not pass these tests but may still
In addition, some pieces
which are NOT bakelite may pass some of these tests. For
this reason, it is very important to test with several
methods, including hot water and 409, and to also look
for other evidences of bakelite content, such as oxidation
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