What is Bakelite?

 

Bakelite and Catalin

The History of Bakelite & Catalin and How to Test for Authenticity
Bakelite 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.

Bakelite
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.

Vintage Cherry Red Bakelite Dinnerware Set
Catalin

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 and catalin
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.

Further testing for actual bakelite or catalin content
There 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.

French Bakelite - 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

409 Testing
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 below.

Scrubbing Bubbles Testing
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.

Simichrome Polish Test
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.


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.
Friction test
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 smell.

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.

Other Indicators 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 together.

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 jewelry.

Final 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 be bakelite.

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 and patina.

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