Bakelite “born of fire and mystery,” Time magazine
Bakelite jewellery is hard to find but unlike hen’s teeth you can find it.
I want to explain how I determine whether the plastic costume jewellery that I have collected over the years is bakelite or some other form of plastic/Lucite.
Bakelite is a man made plastic named after a Belgian chemist, Leo Hendrik Baekeland who invented it in 1907. Just Google the word bakelite and you’ll get loads of information about its history. Bakelite was probably the first real plastic as it is entirely synthetic in its make up. Jewellery has often been made from plastics like amber and reformed bone.
If the piece is being purchased at a flea market, vintage fair or car boot sale then I rely on my sense of touch/feel and my eyes. Bakelite tends to come in a range of colours that are more natural looking than Lucite (oranges, greens, rusts and browns). The piece will usually be quite clunky and solid to the touch. Definitely no seams as this would denote a moulded plastic. Bakelite has a warmth and greasiness that Lucite does not. When I get the piece home, I will run it under hot water and wait to see if there is a smell that is very strongly formaldehyde or carbolic acid. If bakelite the smell will be apparent very quickly when run under very hot water. At the same time I will use a cotton bud to rub a very small amount of simichrome/or chrome polish on the piece and if it is bakelite there will be a yellow residue on the cotton bud. Some colours of bakelite wont test positive with the polish but if they are bakelite then the hot water test may confirm its authenticity.
If you want to collect plastics, try and not be disappointed if it isn’t bakelite. There were certainly lots of other plastics that were used in the middle to late 20th Century and if you buy because you like, then you will never feel cheated.
Remember Andy Warhol, who said “everyone will be famous for 15 minutes”? He was a flea market junkie and fell in love with Bakelite as a medium. He bought every quality piece he could find and accumulated a huge collection. After his death in the late 1980’s, this collection was sold at Sotheby’s in New York and this spurred interest and therefore prices risen.