Friday, January 28, 2011

Bakelite! Bakelite! Bakelite!

I had some requests to do a more thorough post about Bakelite. I tried to include everything I could think of, but I am by no means an expert. I am simply a collector and lover of Bakelite and other vintage plastics. If any of you have anything to add to this please leave me a comment.


History
Our favorite "plastic" came about completely by accident. In 1907 a chemist, Dr. Leo Baekeland, discovered that when he mixed carbolic acid and formaldehyde, the compound would never, ever melt. He trademarked it as 'Bakelite' and it was the first completely synthetic plastic ever produced.  Bakelite became hugely popular as "the material with 1000 uses". It was used in cars, radios, phones, toys, kitchen utensils, poker chips etc. In 1927 when the patent expired it was purchased by the Catalin Corporation. Most Bakelite collected today was made by Catalin.

Bakelite as jewelry became widely popular due to economic struggle. The Great Depression  meant that most people could not afford diamonds and jewels so Bakelite took its place. It came in a variety of colors, carvings and designs. Bangles, earrings, brooches, hat pins, belt buckles, shoe clips, etc, etc. Ironically, World War 2 brought about the end of Bakelite. The Catalin Corp quite producing it in 1942 in order to focus on the war effort. Because of this, new molded plastics emerged: Lucite, Vinyl, Acrylic and Fiberglass.



Colors and Designs
Bakelite was most widely produced in white, brown, green and red, but it came in a wide variety of colors, including pink, blue, purple, and amber. Over time some of these can oxidize and completely change color.

White becomes yellow.
Blue becomes green.
Pink becomes orange.
Violet becomes brown.

Because of this oxidization process, its really rare to find bakelite in those colors, making them more collectible (and expensive).


Prystal is a variation of Bakelite, and is completely transparent with no marbling. The most common prystal variation is amber, or applejuice as it is most commonly known. Rootbeer and tortoise pieces are marbled. Multiple colors and materials can be fused or laminated together, including rainbow and polka dots, wood and silver. Carved pieces were machined by hand and come in thousands of variations.


Prystal


Testing
Most people can not tell the difference between plastic and Bakelite so it is up to you to be educated. Eventually you will be able to tell just by looking at it, for the most part, but until then you will need to know how to properly test Bakelite.

The 409 test.
Dip a Q Tip in 409 and rub it on the piece, preferably on the back or inside. You only need a tiny bit of the Bakelite. If the Q Tip turns yellow then you know it is Bakelite. Once you have tested the piece thoroughly clean off any 409 left on the piece.

The hot water test.
Put the piece under hot water and let it warm up a bit. If it is Bakelite it should smell bad, like formaldehyde. If it smells like camphor its celluloid. If it smells like burnt milk its Galalith.

The Simichrome test.
Simichrome is a chrome cleaner and you can test a piece the same way you would with 409. If the Q Tip turns yellow it is Bakelite. As with 409 please thoroughly clean the piece after testing.

The rub test.
This will probably be your most commonly used test, as I doubt most people carry 409 or Simichrome around with them. Take the piece and rub a spot with your finger, warming it up a bit. Then take a whiff. If you smell something chemical, formaldehyde, then you have Bakelite. A lot of people can not use this test however, as it really depends on your sense of smell.

The hot pin test.
DO NOT DO THIS TEST! I WILL NOT EVEN EXPLAIN HOW TO DO IT. YOU WILL RUIN THE PIECE IF YOU STICK A HOT PIN IN IT SO JUST DON'T DO IT!!!!!

When I am shopping for Bakelite I use a variety of methods to test it. I can usually tell if its Bakelite by looking at it. There will be no mold lines in the piece, as Bakelite should be seamless. I will hold the piece. It should have a bit of weight to it, unlike Lucite and modern plastics which feel hollow. I will also do the rub test. Another way to tell if its Bakelite is by the sound it makes when it hits another Bakelite piece. It should kind of 'clunk' together. Bakelite has a distinctive sound, one that most Bakelite enthusiasts will know and love.


Other Vintage Plastics

Bakelite is not the only collectible vintage plastic out there. Most collectors and vintage lovers will probably have at least a few of these pieces as well:
Lucite-This plastic comes in every color and variation imaginable, including transparent, solid, and marbled. Thermoset, moonglow, and confetti are popular styles. Purses and shoes made of lucite are very collectible. It is not as strong as Bakelite, cracking and scratching rather easily.

Lucite

Celluloid-More popular during the Art Deco period, it is more brittle and thin than Bakelite. It comes in many colors but is most popular in white and pastel. It contains Camphor, hence the smell. It is also flammable.

Celluloid

Galalith-Also known as French Bakelite, is a non moldable plastic that contains formaldehyde and milk protein. It was used to imitate horn, ivory, and shell. It is stronger than celluloid and non flammable.

Galalith


Fakelite
What a dirty word, right?? It doesn't have to be, of course, as long as you know what it is. You certainly wouldn't want to pay diamond prices for cubic zirconia, now would you? The truth is there are people out there looking to make a quick buck by passing off anything plastic and carved as Bakelite. Just because it kind of looks like Bakelite does not make it so. This is why it is important to test a piece before you buy it. If you are purchasing a piece online I highly recommend following these guidelines:

-Carefully look at all photos, and request more if needed.
-Check feedback or reviews for that seller.
-I would be wary of buying Bakelite from a seller in India or China (see below).
-Read the description thoroughly and ask questions if needed.
-Make sure the description does not use the term 'Bakelite Style'.
-A reputable seller will state that the piece was tested by one of the methods listed above, and that it tested positive for Bakelite.
-Make sure there is some sort of return policy in case the piece you purchase does not pass the test.

I prefer to buy my bakelite in person so that I can see and feel the piece. However, you can get great pieces off of Ebay or an online store if you follow the guidelines above.

Here are some modern 'vintage style' plastics:
Retrolite-A modern plastic made to imitate Bakelite. It is thin and usually sells for a fraction of what Bakelite would cost.
Resin-A poured plastic that looks more like lucite than Bakelite.


Retrolite

Now for the scariest Fakelite of them all: the kind currently being mass produced in places like India, Taiwan, and China. These things are popping up all over Ebay, and sometimes they are not cheap. This is what the item description says, complete with spelling errors:

"PLEASE NOTICE , NOW ADAYS bakelite is not a trade name. Bakelite is the name of this kind of PHENOLIC  plastic and is not owned by any company or under any form of trademark protection all kinds of phenolic plastices  can be  called  bakelite..  NO BRAND UNMARKED/UNMARK/UNMARKS .. THIS IS  A  COTEMPORARY BAKELITE STYLE   BANGLE BRACELET 2.46"(6.25CM) OPENING WRISTFOR SLENDER OR CHILD  .  AND  ABOUT 1.14" WIDE   .  GOOD PATINA LEVEL  NO  NICKS OR  CRACKS .. FREE INTERNATIONAL SHIPPING  AND  FASTIFY  GURANTEED .  30 DAYS RETURN  FOR  FULL REFUND .  (BUYER  PAY  RETURN SHIPPING)  .  IF  YOU  HAVE  ANY  QUESTION ABOUT  THIS  ITEM  PLEASE   DON,T HESITATE TO  ASK  . THANK YOU  FOR YOUR LOOKING .FREE INTERNATIONAL   REGULAR AIR PACKET ..GREAT USED CONDITION.SIMICHROME , AND 409 TESTED POSITIVE  . YOU  ARE NOT  BIDDING A  CHEAP RESIN  LUCITE  BANGLE . IT WILL NOT LET  YOU DOWN."


"Asianlite"

I really don't know if what they say is true and I have no idea how they make these pieces. I have yet to see one in person but have heard that they do not look as good as they do in the photos. However, looking through the completed listings shows that people are buying these. They sell anywhere from $5 to $70, with outrageous Buy It Now prices up to $149. Their feedback is 100% so I guess as long as you know that what you are buying is not Bakelite (not in my opinion anyway) its ok. I won't be buying any of it any time soon though. I want the real thing.

This next section was added on 2/5/11. It was a comment left by a reader concerning "Asianlite". Its pretty informative so I thought I'd include it.

ILiveInMyLab wrote:

"So please don't hate me - but I own a few pieces of the Asianlite (*dodges rotten tomatoes being thrown my direction I know*). I'm still in graduate school and just wanted a few fun pieces that did not cost a fortune to wear so one day I gave in and bought a piece from them that was $10 just to see how it was in person. Since then I have purchased 5 more pieces consisting of broaches and bangles. I thought I would chime in with some thoughts on it to help keep people from accidentally buying thinking it is real Bakelite. I refuse to pay more than what is comparable to any modern bangle I'd buy at a traditional store at the mall so I've never done the "buy it now" pieces at the crazy high prices. But anyways, here are my thoughts on Asianlite from my personal experience...



They are pretty reputable, I have not had any trouble with my purchases arriving and everything that I have ordered has looked exactly as shown in the photos (*this may not be the case for everyone though*). My pieces have tested simichrome, hot water, and 409 positive (this is the first thing I did when they arrived just to see). I am not sure how "modern" of a reproduction they are due to the amount of aging on a few of the pieces. With that, I am quite curious what type of oxidizing agent they are using to faux age them (it's the scientist in me). The pieces are perfectly seamless, heavy, and even make the bakelite "clunk". The broaches metal portions even show even amounts of oxidation from aging (which makes me think it has either been in storage for a long time or evenly dipped. This is fine and dandy for me, as I am not a serious collector and just wear them because I enjoy some of the unique carving designs, but what does concern me is that I have seen quite a few Asianlite pieces end up in American based sellers shops on Etsy and Ebay listing claiming to be actual vintage bakelite with a price tag to match. One piece in particular, is now listed on Etsy for $200. If I was a collector and accidentally purchased this piece only to find out later it was Asianlite, I'd be pretty peeved. I think the best way to avoid getting scammed is to always look cautiously at the carving design style. Asianlite bangles have a very unique and specific style of carving. The designs are sometimes Asian influenced and the floral styles have a bit more of what you would expect to see with some of the celluloid floral designs. This is really the easiest way to describe it without giving you detailed photos. Hopefully this is a somewhat helpful review of the Asianlite, I just hope no one accidentally buys it thinking it is the real thing :/"


Price of Bakelite
I really don't know what to put here. Bakelite can be priced very reasonably, or extremely high. It really depends on the piece and, more importantly, how much you are willing to pay for it. The most I have paid for a piece is around $100. I personally look for deals because at the end of the day it is just plastic. It was made to be affordable, yet now it is collectible so the prices have gone up. However, I have noticed a decrease in price in the past couple years. I'm sure this will change in the near future, but while it is down I will pick up as many pieces as possible!



.

44 comments:

  1. thanks for posting this, i see bakelite all over the place on blogs and i never was properly educated on it!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Really fantastic post! Love it! Super informative!

    I wonder if the red bakelite earrings I used to have were tested with a hot pin because they had an obvious poke hole right in the front! Hello! Do it in the back!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Great informative post. I started collecting last year - inspired by all the fabulous pieces I kept seeing on others blogs (yours included!), and I'm allergic to lots of metals, so Bakelite suits me perfectly. I too, search out genuine pieces, estate finds from antiques sites. I buy it online from the US as its not really availble in the UK. I think once you know that distinctive smell, look and feel, nothing else will do! Great pics by the way. I'd love to do a smash & grab at the shop in your first photo! lol!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Mmmmm. That first photo looks like a booth at a local antique mall where there are outrageously amazing Bakelite pieces, along with outrageous prices. LOL

    I love all sorts of vintage plastics but do love Bakelite the best. :)

    ReplyDelete
  5. Fabulous post! I cringe at the thought of the hot pin test.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Thanks for a great and informative post! I like your comment "at the end of the day it is just plastic"...that's a really good point! It's kind of ironic that things that were produced to be fun and affordable can be so expensive nowadays.
    Not always, though...this morning I scored a lovely old pair of serving utensils with green jello prystal handles at a garage sale for a dollar! Happy dance :)

    ReplyDelete
  7. What a fabulous post! I've been seeing a lot on other blogs about Bakelite tems, and love the look of it, but I would NEVER know how to tell if something is genuine myself....I feel much better informed now! Thankyou :) xx

    ReplyDelete
  8. Great post, people need to know the basics sometimes. FYI, old lucite can be really heavy, I have some 40s (I think) shoe display stands that weigh a ton.

    ReplyDelete
  9. What a great post, thank you so much - I didn't know lots of this stuff. Have added this post to my 'favourites' :)

    ReplyDelete
  10. Did you go to Antique Connection the last time you were in town? So much bakelite there! If I ever win the lottery, I'm going to buy all of it, keep some for myself and give great gifts! But, I'm not going to hold my breath on the lottery thing. Sigh.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I'm glad that this post is helpful. It was great for me to brush up on my bakelite knowledge as well!

    ReplyDelete
  12. Jana-I haven't been there. Where is it? We're gonna be back in 'burque in Feb.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Great post! Holly, what's your opinion on certain Bakelite bangles that are labeled as "resin washed?" I found a beautiful deeply carved bracelet online, which states that... but it costs a fortune and I'm afraid to get gyped for a fake piece. Hubby will kill me!

    I'm guessing that if it's resin washed, it wouldn't test positive with the 409 or simichrome test...but then again, I have no clue. Thoughts pls!

    ReplyDelete
  14. It's east of Juan Tabo on Central, pretty close to Tramway. You should check it out when you come back.They have some great jewelry!

    ReplyDelete
  15. This is the best post on Bakelite I have seen! Thanks for all the helpful info.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Crafty Doll-I think it would depend if the entire piece is resin washed, or just part. If you look in the third picture some of those are resin washed, but you can still see bits of the bakelite in the carved areas or on the inside of the bangle. I would imagine that you could test that part. If the whole thing is resin washed, however, it probably can not be tested. That doesn't mean its not Bakelite though, as some Bakelite does not pass the proper tests for various reasons. I would say that if you love the piece and the seller has a good reputation it may be worth taking a chance. Maybe contact the seller and ask more questions about the piece. Maybe that will help you decide if the price is worth it or not.

    Hope this helped!

    ReplyDelete
  17. Yes, it helped tremendously... thank you! I decided not to purchase. The seller said it won't test positive since it is coated. No thanks! Too much money to not know if it is or isn't really Bakelite. Asides from that, I need to watch my spending!

    ReplyDelete
  18. So please don't hate me - but I own a few pieces of the Asianlite (*dodges rotten tomatoes being thrown my direction I know*). I'm still in graduate school and just wanted a few fun pieces that did not cost a fortune to wear so one day I gave in and bought a piece from them that was $10 just to see how it was in person. Since then I have purchased 5 more pieces consisting of broaches and bangles. I thought I would chime in with some thoughts on it to help keep people from accidentally buying thinking it is real Bakelite. I refuse to pay more than what is comparable to any modern bangle I'd buy at a traditional store at the mall so I've never done the "buy it now" pieces at the crazy high prices. But anyways, here are my thoughts on Asianlite from my personal experience...

    They are pretty reputable, I have not had any trouble with my purchases arriving and everything that I have ordered has looked exactly as shown in the photos (*this may not be the case for everyone though*). My pieces have tested simichrome, hot water, and 409 positive (this is the first thing I did when they arrived just to see). I am not sure how "modern" of a reproduction they are due to the amount of aging on a few of the pieces. With that, I am quite curious what type of oxidizing agent they are using to faux age them (it's the scientist in me). The pieces are perfectly seamless, heavy, and even make the bakelite "clunk". The broaches metal portions even show even amounts of oxidation from aging (which makes me think it has either been in storage for a long time or evenly dipped. This is fine and dandy for me, as I am not a serious collector and just wear them because I enjoy some of the unique carving designs, but what does concern me is that I have seen quite a few Asianlite pieces end up in American based sellers shops on Etsy and Ebay listing claiming to be actual vintage bakelite with a price tag to match. One piece in particular, is now listed on Etsy for $200. If I was a collector and accidentally purchased this piece only to find out later it was Asianlite, I'd be pretty peeved. I think the best way to avoid getting scammed is to always look cautiously at the carving design style. Asianlite bangles have a very unique and specific style of carving. The designs are sometimes Asian influenced and the floral styles have a bit more of what you would expect to see with some of the celluloid floral designs. This is really the easiest way to describe it without giving you detailed photos. Hopefully this is a somewhat helpful review of the Asianlite, I just hope no one accidentally buys it thinking it is the real thing :/

    ReplyDelete
  19. ILiveInMyLab-Thanks for the info! I may attach it to my post just so people can get all the info about Asianlite that they can. Since I've never bought it I can't say anything about it. I'm glad that they are nice pieces, but my worry is the same as yours: We will begin to see the Asianlite pieces being sold as Bakelite, since they look and test positive. For people that collect this is not a good. thing. But at least they are making quality pieces, especially for only $10! However, I still plan on only buying pieces that I believe are real Bakelite. This is why I 'watch' the Asianlite, so that I can be educated on what they look like.

    Thanks for your comment! It really helps!

    ReplyDelete
  20. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  21. No problem at all! I thought you might be interested. From a serious collectors standpoint, I would be very worried too (this is part of the reason I don't feel too guilty buying them, as I know I have no plans of ever selling unlike some of the other buyers.)

    Would you like a few photos of some of the specific carving styles that I have noticed appear commonly on the Asianlite? I can post a few photos to my Flickr account and send you the link. I have also been meaning to clean up a few of the pieces to see how good of a bakelite iridescence/shine I can get to them (they often arrive a bit dusty, another good indicator of Asianlite) so I can give good "before cleaning" and "after cleaning" comparions. Unfortunately I do not have any examples of the bangles that have the dots or the prystal imitations. I have seen a few for sale recently and I suspect they are VERY good modern imitations.

    *Edited because grammar is helpful thing!

    ReplyDelete
  22. That is so scary that Asianlite or Fakelite can now pass all tests and even have that same "clunk" sound. Geez, are we not safe anymore to assume that what we're purchasing is real Bakelite? What a shame. This makes me really iffy now, because how are we supposed to know the difference if it looks the same, has the same weight, and even passes all tests? =/

    ReplyDelete
  23. ILiveInMyLab-Pics would be great! I'd love for this post to contain more info about them, so that people can be educated. Your view helps a lot!

    Crafty Doll-It worries me too. I hope I never get caught paying too much for a piece of Asianlite!!!

    ReplyDelete
  24. Ok, I snapped a few photos tonight (they're terrible forgive me), but you can see them here... http://www.flickr.com/photos/iliveinmylab/sets/72157625985098038/ I think the easiest ways to tell is by the color. I've seen a lot of "End of Day" mixed colors, the yellow and green bracelet is a great example of that. Also, the Asian stuff tends to arrive slightly dirty and unpolished (the pierced bracelet is a great example - currently working on cleaning it). My camera makes it look worse than it actually is thanks to the flash but it's got a tinge to it and most pieces do not have the sheen that you would expect with original pieces. The heavily carved black floral bracelet is very bright and shiny in person, but it does have the one carving design that I have seen in quite a bit of Asianlite - the small round circles. Several of the bangles have them and they are very difficult to clean, I am not sure how common it is in the original Bakelite, but the Bakelite auction catalogs I have do not feature bangles with this pattern (If anyone else has seen something similar though please feel free to compare the two). I hope this helps! If you have any more questions just let me know and I'll be updating with a few more photos as I progress with cleaning some of them. I want to have before and after photos just so you can see how they look after a good solid cleaning.

    ReplyDelete
  25. ILiveInMyLab-thanks for the pictures! They help a lot!

    The little circles definitely do not look like anything I've seen in real Bakelite. They also look over carved to me. Maybe thats their calling card? Like most Bakelite that is carved is a little more refined. They definitely do not look bad though. I could see why people would want to buy them, especially for $10 dollars. I just really hope that most people stay honest and do not try to knowingly sell them as real Bakelite when they aren't. But we all know how that goes!!

    ReplyDelete
  26. Yeah, the little circles appear to be the "calling card" at least on the heavily carved ones. Every time I see one for sale on Etsy that's heavily carved with the little circles my "This is a fake" buzzer goes off in my head. I'm also a bit of a fan of the odd and kitsch thus I have gone for more of the odd-over-carved appearance. These do not have the artistic influence of that time that I have seen in a lot of the carved Bakelite. I've seen them sell pieces that aren't quite as heavily carved or with the dots or stripes, I just haven't purchased them to see what they're like in person. Glad this helped!

    ReplyDelete
  27. So tonight I happened to stumble across a fantastic site with better descriptions on how to ID the Asian Bakelite/Fakelite and even though this was posted ages ago I thought I would share! http://www.fakelite.com/detective.htm It describes that you need to test multiple times because over time the fakelite will cause the test result to change in color (it'll still react but turn a different shade). I haven't tried this out on mine yet, but I'll let you know!

    ReplyDelete
  28. ILiveinmyLab-Great info!! I'll have to check it out! And let me know what you find out. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  29. This is honestly best thing I've read in a long time. Amazing information, and you do it in a way that newbies to the game would understand. Thank you for the awesome page!

    ReplyDelete
  30. OMG! LOVE your page!!!!!

    ReplyDelete
  31. I've just posted over 150 auctions of genuine Bakelite pieces on Ebay all with low starting prices! Take a look!
    http://stores.ebay.com/SomeLikeUs

    ReplyDelete
  32. I would caution that the color when using 409 or Simichrome should be a deep yellow, almost goldenrod, because a lot of times yellow celluloid tests "positive" since the testing medium is pulling the yellow color.

    ReplyDelete
  33. HI! I love your blog. I am a Bakelite enthusiast, having had 3 separate times in my life that I became obsessed with it. I don't know why I leave, but I always come back. Currently I am trying to find dot injected pieces, and have been looking on the web to sse if I can find some sort of color value chart. I was wondering which bakelite dot injected colors are the higher value, & the lower end. Just thought you might be able to share some insight. Thanks

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This is a hard question. I am not sure which colors are more valuable than others. I do know, that the injected dots pieces are highly collectible and expensive! Wish I could help more!!

      Delete
    2. Hi, I am a seller of vintage product and do not want to mislead my customers. I have found a crocheted handbag with what appears to be a transluscent brown Bakelite or Lucite handle but am not sure. It was made in Hong Kong and there is a No0478 mark on the handle. Does Bakelite ever have numbers?

      Delete
    3. Chances are it is lucite. I have never heard of Bakelite being numbered, but I could be wrong. Only maybe if it is a clock or radio. I'm really not sure if bakelite was even made in China. I know it is now, but don't know if it was then. I would try and test the handle with simichrome just to be sure.

      Delete
  34. Can anyone give recommendations for "Retrolite" or "Resin" products to make imitation bakelite? I have a serving dish, from Hall China, it sits in a chrome base with two red bakelite handles, one of which is gone. I would like to attempt making a replacement just so it would be useful again.

    ReplyDelete
  35. I have my grandmother's bakelite bracelet which is transparent and shifts from red to lavender, a gentleman years ago provided me with information about the bracelet but now I can't seem to find anything on it. Do you know anything about it?

    ReplyDelete
  36. I identified a little over 30 ebay user IDs of sellers or perhaps a single seller using multiple IDs who was selling fakelite a few years ago. Beware of sellers who have lots and lots of it to sell claiming it is from their personal collections. Also beware of sellers who have multiples of the same item for sale. I know a few of the user IDs are still being used, some most likely were shut down after ebay change the rules stating a seller could not use French bakelite in their title if it truly was not bakelite. When that happened, a lot of sellers started using Galalith as their keyword. Galalith is even harder to find than bakelite. I have owned one piece of it in all my years of collecting. It smells like rotten milk when dipped in hot water.

    ReplyDelete
  37. Just learning about Bakelite and found your post very informative! Thanks a bunch.

    ReplyDelete
  38. Great blog!
    I love the bakelite bracelets etc.
    Thanks for the education on this subject.

    ReplyDelete

I love reading your wonderful comments and opinions!! Feel free to ask questions and I will happily answer them as fast as I can! Any negative comments will be deleted.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...