Hi, Sandy - There are several things to keep in mind when attempting
to determine if something is bakelite:
Bakelite is heavier than other early plastics, and makes a lovely
clunking sound when items such as bangles are knocked together.
If it is a piece of jewelry, you will not see mold lines.
Oxidation - bakelite develops a definite patina over time. Early
bakelite came in a very limited range of darker colors. As the
process and formula progressed, colors became brighter and more
transparent, and the fillers and dyes have a wide range of stability.
Aged bakelite always mellows in color. Clear bakelite turns into the
popular applejuice color, white develops a patina and becomes
butterscotch, greens can mellow into pea greens or khakis, blues
generally turn green. The patina can be very desirable, or it is
sometimes polished away to reveal the original color.
A piece of jewelry, or any item, really, will also have a surface
patina of fine scratches and pitting, which is good evidence of age.
Bakelite is not made anymore, but there is old stock around which is
being made into new jewelry - some of which is meant to deceive the
customer and to look like old jewelry in order to get higher prices,
and some of which is used by honest craftspeople. Old plain bangles
are commonly carved by both honest and dishonest craftspeople.
Hot water test - if you can get the item wet (i.e. if there are no
rhinestones, leather, wood, string, etc. attached to it), run it
under hot tap water for about 30 seconds and then smell it. Bakelite
has a distinctive odor - once smelled it is never forgotten. American
made bakelite gives off a stronger odor than European made.
409/Scrubbing Bubbles/Dow Bathroom Cleaner (non-bleach) test:
Make sure you do this in a discrete area, such as the inside of a
bracelet or the back of a pin, as it can mar the finish of your item.
Spray a small amount onto a q-tip and lightly rub a small area of your
bakelite. Bakelite will leave a yellowish stain on the q-tip
(European made leaves a more brownish stain). Immediately wash your
piece. It the chemical has left an unsightly mark, polish with
HOWEVER, sometimes a piece will simply not meet these criteria. Some
bakelite doesn’t give off a smell under hot water, and sometimes you
can’t even do the hot water test. The chemical tests react only to
the oxidized patina of aged bakelite, so if the finish on your piece
has been stripped recently by buffing or polishing, or it is a newly
made piece of jewelry, it will probably not test positive. Sometimes,
the chemical test doesn’t work at all. Sometimes, you simply have to
make an educated assumption and go with your instincts.
You should also be aware that the term bakelite is sometimes used by
people to mean any old plastic, although it should mean only the
phenolics. Technically, bakelite was a brand name for a
phenol-formaldehyde plastic. Later brand names were Catalin and
One of my favorite books on the subject is “Bakelite Bangles” by
Karima Perry. Great info and lots of fabulous pictures.
That’s basically it, although I’m sure I left something out. I’ve
been fascinated by bakelite jewelry since I was a kid, so I collect
it, and as a jeweler and lapidary you know I can’t leave anything
alone, so I’ve started to learn about working with the stuff, too. If
you have any other questions I’ll do my best to answer them.