Welcome to our vintage Bakelite jewelry page. You can browse
our inventory using the text links along the right
of this page, or scroll down to read about about Bakelite jewelry findings
and Bakelite testing methods
. We're happy to have you and glad
you dropped by.
Bakelite in Vintage Jewelry
Bakelite was developed in the early 1900s
but didn't hit its stride for jewelry manufacturing purposes until the
late 1920s through the early 1940s, when both money and the metals
normally used in jewelry manufacturing were scarce. By the
'40s its use was directed toward the war effort and less toward
ornamentation and following
end of World War II its popularity never really rebounded,
since by that time
its manufacturing process was considered too labor intensive and
costly. Also, with the war's end, once-scarce base metals
because their use was directed toward the war effort), were once again
readily available for use in everyday jewelry.
That's not to
say, however, its use ceased altogether. The
below show an ART (c) necklace from a personal collection that
incorporates paisley-shaped marbled russet Bakelite disks.
copyright symbol displayed on the manufacturer's stamp, coupled with
we've researched on ART (c) pieces, indicates this necklace was made
by accident by Dr. Leo Baekeland, Bakelite's original uses were
utilitarian rather than decorative. Bakelite is a thermoset
plastic, which simply means it is set by high heat and, once set, does
not melt. While this doesn't seem like such a big deal today,
back in the early 1900s this was sensational, for the nearest man made
material that could be considered even remotely akin to our modern day
plastics was celluloid, which is brittle, fairly flimsy and, in its
earliest forms, could even ignite if exposed to too much heat or
friction. Thus, this thermoset plastic's earliest uses came
in the form of
electrical insulators, radio casings and kitchen ware, where its
heat-resistant nature was put to good use.
Bakelite Jewelry Characteristics
Bakelite has a certain look, a certain feel and a certain
it that can be hard to describe to the uninitiated. Like
Court Justice Potter Stewart's remark regarding pornography ("...I know
it when I see it..."), you'll find that the more exposed you become to
this material in its various forms, the more successful you'll be at
discerning what's Bakelite and what isn't, to the point that you'll
"know it when you see it" a great percentage of the time.
That being said, there are
certain characteristics and signs you can look for that will help
narrow down whether the item you're considering is authentic:
Jewelry Made of Bakelite Has No
Unlike many plastics, Bakelite will have no seams.
Bracelets were cut from long tubes, then tumble
polished. Carved bracelets were made so by workers
holding the unfinished product against lathes and carving the
designs into the material. And pins were cut from
or chunks of the material, then carved and tumble polished as required.
Carved Bakelite Jewelry Patterns are Imperfect
As mentioned in the paragraph above, carving was
hand-held proposition. Though the actual carving was done by
machine, it was human hands that held the piece against the
lathe and human eyes, not machines, that gauged how far and how deep to
cut. And don't forget: This was 'every
jewelry.' It could easily be had at the local Woolworth's or
other stores for cheap. Consequently, this hand-held method
mass production, coupled with the fact that these pieces by and large
high-end, means that carved pieces aren't perfect.
Vintage Bakelite jewelry, by and large, will have
vintage findings. 'Findings' simply refers to the
metal) to construct the piece and includes items such as jump
rings, clasps, pin backs, hooks, and the like.
of finding used can be a clue as to a piece's age.
Vintage pin backs, for example, are oftentimes
the material rather than glued. Though a non-riveted pin back
doesn't necessarily mean a piece isn't
vintage, a riveted pin back is a good indicator of a piece's
The first thing to understand about testing is this:
There is no
test that works 100% of the time on 100% of Bakelite.
There are, however, a couple of tests that, coupled with a
working acquaintance with the product, will help you determine whether
a piece is legitimate:
The Hot Water
This test involves dipping the piece in very hot water for
half a minute and immediately smelling it. The material
off the odor of formaldehyde, since phenol formaldehyde, plus filler
material, is the material with which vintage Bakelite was made.
We don't use this test, simply because we aren't acquainted
the smell of formaldehyde and we don't trust our noses to be an
accurate gauge. If you use this test, try to avoid getiting
on metal findings and if it cannot be avoided, be sure your jewelry is
thoroughly dried to avoid rust. Never
immerse pieces with rhinestones in water because the moisture can seep
behind the rhinestones and weaken glue or cause water damage to the
The Rubbing Test
Uses the same principle as the hot water test, only involves
rubbing the piece vigorously with a thumb or finger, creating enough
heat and friction to discern the formaldehyde odor. If you're
confident using your sense of smell as a guide, this is a handy test to
use if you're in an antique store, flea market or other venue where
other testing methods may be impractical.
The 409 Test
This test involves moistening a cotton swab in regular old
Formula 409, then rubbing the swab on the piece in question
pressure. A yellowish stain on the cotton swab indicates a
positive test. We initially used 409 for all our testing but
one point had heard that the 'old'' chemical make up of
409 has changed and that the new Formula 409 isn't a reliable testing
medium. We don't know whether such rumors are valid but once
ran out of 409, we switched to Simichrome.
is a chrome and metal polish that can
supposedly be purchased at hardware stores. After
around our local hardware stores in search of this stuff for a couple
of weeks, we gave up and just ordered ours online from an Ebay seller.
It cost us around $7.00 about four years ago.
The tube we bought is 1.76
ounces and as you can see, we've only used a very small amount of it.
Simichrome test is similar to the 409 test: Squeeze a very,
small amount of Simichrome onto a cotton swab, then rub it on the piece
you're testing using moderate pressure. The Simichrome, which
comes out of the tube a very light, pinkish color, will turn yellowish
on the swab if the piece you're testing is Bakelite.
favor this test for the same reasons we initially liked the
test: We've found it to be easy to perform, consistent
and reliable. We believe it provides the most
accurate results, relying not on a keen sense of smell, 'smell memory'
or wishful thinking but on evidence we can see almost immediately.
things to note about Simichrome testing: Simichrome will
strip the patina off your piece if used too vigorously. Use
sparingly and if at all possible, test on the reverse side of a piece.
We've yet to have a piece's appearance altered by use of Simichrome.
Just proceed gently.
Simichrome is smelly, even in small
amounts. Once you've completed your test, be sure to wash off
area that's been tested. We use a soft toothbrush and a
bit of dish soap in warm water. Works like a charm.
Tests That Are
. Other tests you may have heard
of include the hot pin test and the Scrubbing Bubbles test.
We absolutely do not
recommend these tests. The hot pin test involves heating a
then placing it on the piece. The idea is that if it's
the piece will remain intact and unmelted. That's
fine, but what if you have a piece of vintage celluloid or gutta percha
on your hands, or other piece of collectible or valuable material?
You now have a damaged piece that is worth less than
you started. And while a hot pin won't melt
Bakelite, it can
somewhat. Why risk the damage?
The Scrubbing Bubbles test uses
the same principles as the 409 and Simichrome tests, only using
Scrubbing Bubbles. While we've read this test can produce
results, it is also much easier to mar a piece's finish by using
Scrubbing Bubbles. And we've even seen listings
on Ebay claiming the piece passed 'the Ajax test.' No doubt a
degeneration of the Scrubbing Bubbles test but it can give a person
nightmares thinking of someone scrubbing away at a piece of Bakelite jewelry with Ajax or Comet cleanser.
There is No
Fail Safe Test That Can Be Applied To ALL Situations.
Sometimes black color pieces will not test positive.
an item that's been painted or clear coated will not test.
Or a piece that's been refinished or vigorously polished with
Simichrome may not test. But by and large, by exposing
to vintage Bakelite jewelry in its various forms, by feeling it in your
by testing and by viewing photos of classic designs,
you'll find yourself well on your way to becoming your own in-house