Bakelite 101: the gem of plastic vintage jewelry

bakelite collage

Anyone who likes vintage jewelry knows the allure of Bakelite. There’s just something special about it, the colors, designs, feel, and that sound. That wonderful clunky sound.

Bakelite bangle before professional polishing
Bakelite bangle before professional polishing
Same Bakelite bangle after professional polishing
Same Bakelite bangle after professional polishing

Bakelite or it’s cousin Catalin was used for lots more than jewelry though. It was originally created for use in the industrial world. Think electrical insulators, distributor caps on cars, radio parts, telephones, etc.

Which brings us to that eternal vintage jewelry lover’s question: how do you tell if it’s Bakelite, fakelite, or something else all together? There are a few simple tests that can answer your question.

One quick thing to look for, Bakelite will never have mold or form markings on it. If you feel a line running around the center of a bangle, it is not bakelite.

The easiest and safest way to test Bakelite is the Hot Water Test. As simple as it sounds, just place your item in hot water (not boiling) for about 15 seconds. Now smell it. If it’s true Bakelite it should have a somewhat sweet old chemical smell to it similar to formaldehyde. Many types of plastic and resin have distinct smells. So this one is going to be a bit of a learning curve. Once you know that distinct smell however, you will never forget it.

Simichrome Polish test for Bakelite
Simichrome Polish test for Bakelite

Another way to test Bakelite is with Simichrome Polish.  Simichrome polish is a pink polish made for cleaning metals. It is a bit pricey, but will last for a very long time. It can be purchased online and it works well as a way to test most Bakelite. But, there are some Bakelite items that will not test positive with Simichrome.  These include newly polished or made items that do not have an aged patina, items that have been overdyed and some black or red Bakelite items.

To test for authentic Bakelite with Simichrome polish, take a cotton swab or clean rag and dab a bit of polish on it. Rub you piece for a few seconds and take a look at your swab or rag. Is the area yellow? If so, it’s Bakelite. If not, it’s something else.

I have also read about and heard that Original 409 works similarly to Simichrome polish. As I have not personally tried it, it’s not something I can vouch for however.

There are online sellers who sell Bakelite testing pads that you can purchase and carry with you to test items before you purchase. You can do a Google search for “Bakelite testing pads” to find out where to buy.

Another note regarding Bakelite. There are a number of wonderfully talented artists using old bakelite stock to create new items.  Some involve intricate carvings, overdyes, and laminates or inserts that were never seen in the past. These true artisans create both new and old designs of such high quality, they are well worth the price and will retain their value over time.

A quick word about “fakelite”: There are many unscrupulous sellers out there passing off newly manufactured items that resemble Bakelite but are not. Buyer beware. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. However, there are many fabulous new items made to look like vintage bakelite. If a seller is honest about what they are selling, I find no reason not to enjoy these new products.

Just because your item isn’t Bakelite doesn’t mean it isn’t vintage or a worthwhile purchase.There are many forms of vintage plastics and resins that were used to create fabulous pieces of jewelry, purses, household items, and more. Part 2 of this post covers those other vintage plastics.

The best is yet to come! Pam, Vintage Renude

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7 comments

  1. IN your first two pictures at the top, are these different bracelets?
    Love learning about how to test for it. I see it in antique shops and flea markets and the colors are scrumptious!

    1. Hi Mary Ellen,
      The first two pictures are of the same bracelet before and after being professionally polished. Amazing difference isn’t it!

  2. Mary Ellen,
    Bakelite changes color when exposed to the elements. The first picture was what it looked like when I found it. Sort of a muddy brownish grey. Held up to the light, I could see the faint hint of lavender undertake patina. Once that patina was polished off, the original color was visible. But, that patina is what turns yellow when you test with Simichrome polish.

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