Hello, Gisela - As a collector of bakelite bangles, this is one of my
favorite topics. Originally Leo Baekeland’s (hence, bakelite)
thermosetting phenolic formaldehyde resin, ‘bakelite’ quickly became
a somewhat generic term for any phenolic resin. Trade names include
Catalin, Prystal (a little later in time and translucent), and
Marblette. Once the resin has been heated and formed, it cannot be
remelted - which is why it was used extensively for things like
kitchen pot handles and parts for electric items. And of course it’s
quite decorative, so it was also used extensively for just about
anything else you can think of.
One of the commonly heard of tests is the red hot pin test - DO NOT
DO THIS!!! This will greatly reduce the value of an item, in
addition to being unsightly, and possibly dangerous if you are wrong
about the material (celluloid could potentially burst into flame).
The currently accepted tests aRe:
Examine the piece: Bakelite is heavy. Bracelets make a lovely
clunking noise when worn together. There is a characteristic look,
feel, and sound to bakelite which is understood with a little
Smell: If it will not damage a piece, dip it into hot water.
There is usually a characteristic nasty smell. If it smells of
camphor it is celluloid.
Chemical: Use the tip of a q-tip to lightly swab a bit of
Formula 409 in a discreet area - bakelite usually will rub off a
yellow residue. Wash the piece immediately afterwords to remove any
remaining chemical residue.
Think!: Sometimes a European phenolic resin will not exhibit much
of a smell. The yellow residue from the chemical test is due to the
patina that bakelite develops with time - if an overly enthusiastic
person has recently scrubbed and polished an item, it may no longer
have a patina, and hence no residue. Sometimes, you really just have
to go on instinct and educated practice.
Also, be aware that there are new resins which are duplicating many
of the characteristics of bakelite. The Taiwanese resin tends to be
too heavy, and does not have the correct smell in hot water. There
was also a lot of leftover bakelite from various factories which is
now being made into new jewelry. Some of this is appropriately
collectible in its own right as there are a few modern artisans doing
excellent work with this vintage material.
As far as books and websites, you can’t go wrong with
fantasticplastic.com. Her book about bangles, which you can buy on
the site, is excellent. Rhinestoneairplane.com is also an excellent
purveyor of vintage and new artisan bakelite.