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Telling Bakelite From Other Plastic Materials

Dr. He was born in Belgium. In 1889 he immigrated to the USA in hopes of better career opportunities.

In 1907 he was working as a freelance chemist when he accidentally discovered the compound carbolic acid and formaldehyde. When he tried to solidify the mixture again, he discovered that no matter how high the temperature, it would not melt.

Shortly after he introduced “Bakelite” as well as two other variants “catalin” and “marblette” which are also known as bakelite today.

Bakelite was the first synthetic plastic. Due to its durability and beauty its uses were simply endless, it quickly grew in popularity and took the world by storm within 15 years.

You can find everything from electric kettles, to decorative jewelry made of bakelite. It was even used on the dashboard surface of the Mercedes Benz car.

It can be produced in a range of colors, but most commonly white, brown, green and red. Bakelite dating back to the 1920s-1940s has oxidized and developed a wonderful patina that is sometimes a completely different color than the original. For example, White is often seen as butter, light blue becomes forest green, pink becomes orange.

Because of this invention, Dr. Beakeland is considered the father of the current plastic industry. Costume jewelry from the bakelite era of the 1920s-1940s is highly sought after. So how do you tell if it’s actually made of bakelite? There are some very simple tests. Although not fool proof they work very well.

Smell – When bakelite is heated it has a very strong smell which comes from the carbolic acid in the composition. On some pieces, you can simply dry the scent with your finger and create warmth.

Others will need very hot water to release the odor. Still on others the smell is so faint that you cannot recognize it.

Sound – When you tap two pieces of bakelite together, they will produce a deep hollow sound, rather than the high pitched hum of acrylic or Lucite plastics. This is the most unreliable test because sound is difficult to interpret because the density of objects affects the sound you hear.

Hot Pin Test – Bakelite is a thermoset plastic, so it cannot be reformed by heat. To test whether a piece is bakelite, take a very hot pin from an open flame source, then place the pin on the item. If it’s bakelite, it won’t go in.

It may smell acidic and may leave a purple burn mark.

If the pin goes into the plastic or melts then it is not bakelite. Use caution when performing this test as it can greatly reduce the bakelite piece, and may cause serious damage to other types of plastic if the piece is not bakelite. If you continue this experiment, you are sure to find a very unexpected place.

Also if the material is celluloid, it is very flammable and can be very dangerous. If you suspect that the piece may be celluloid, I suggest you “not” do this test. When performing this test, you must wear appropriate safety equipment such as goggles and gloves.

Formula 409 or Scrubbing Bubbles or Simichrome – this product works very well to test if a material is bakelite. Make sure the item is clean, moisten the end of a Q-tip with Formula 409 and then apply it to the piece.

If the letter Q turns yellow, then the piece is bakelite. If you believe a piece is bakelite but it doesn’t pass the 409 test, don’t consider it. Sometimes the bakelite polish will not react or pass the test.

The best way to identify bakelite is through experience. Once you’ve seen enough pieces you’ll recognize it easily. There are also some great books on the market that can help you.

  • o BAKELITE JEWELRY – Tony Grasso
  • o READ BAKELITE AND OTHER PLASTICS – Dee Battle & Alayne Lesser
  • o BAKELITE JEWELRY GOOD*BETTER*BEST – Donna Wassertrom & Leslie Pina

    Bakelite has always been known as the material with 1000 uses, and it certainly has earned this name. Bakelite is now treasured for its unique, unrepeatable beauty. When the Bakelite patent expired in 1927, it was taken over by the Catalin Company that same year.

    They started mass production under the name “Catalin”. The Catalin company was responsible for 70% of all phenolic resins available today.

    Bakelite-Catalin was sold mostly to companies like Saks Fifth Avenue, Bonwit Teller, Woolworth’s, and Sears. Much of the rich community fell into contact times during the depression and could no longer afford Tiffany diamonds or Cartier jewelry.

    Bakelite-Catalin rocked the market with its colorful, rhinestone-encrusted jewelry. This jewelry was in everyone’s hands and its popularity spread from the poor to the richest of society.

    In 1942 Bakelite-Catalin stopped selling its colorful costume jewelry to focus on the nation’s wartime needs. They produced thousands of products and went into the army.

    At the end of the war new technologies for molded plastics were developed. These new products were made from plastics such as Lucite, Fiberglass, Vinyl, and Acrylic. Bakelite and Catalin are becoming obsolete except in the hearts of collectors who still follow it today.

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