HistoryOur 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 DesignsBakelite 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.
TestingMost 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.
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.
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.
FakeliteWhat 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.
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."
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.
"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 BakeliteI 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!