Curious about a flea market find? It could be Bakelite, a synthetic compound developed in 1907 by Leo Baekeland, a Belgian-American chemist. Widely considered the first synthetic plastic, Bakelite items are a hot commodity today among collectors of vintage jewelry and mechanical parts.
With plenty of reproductions on the market, it's wise to learn various methods to identify Bakelite rather than finding out afterward that you have made a costly mistake. There are many ways to test valuable Bakelite pieces, and several of them require using only your senses. Until you get very comfortable identifying Bakelite, however, it's good to employ more than one of these tests.
Some people who are well-versed in Bakelite identification recommend the hot water test as the standard when it comes to accurately identifying this form of plastic. In this method, the piece of plastic is placed under very hot running tap water. The heat from the water releases the formaldehyde-like scent of Bakelite. This test works well with bangle bracelets that are made entirely of Bakelite and is a very good way to confirm a piece once you get it home. But while this has proven an effective method of at-home testing, most consumers trying to verify vintage items don't have access to hot water when making buying decisions in the middle of a flea market.
You may need to employ more than one test to rule out a false positive (or negative) result. Use all your senses in concert to help you determine whether or not an object you are examining is Bakelite. A word of caution: avoid using the "hot pin" test, where a pin or needle warmed by a heat source is pressed into the plastic item. Some older plastics like celluloid are very flammable, and a hot pin can be dangerous to not only the plastic but to you as well.
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Tapping Items Together
One way to start learning about Bakelite identification is listening for the familiar "clunk" when two pieces you know to be Bakelite are tapped together. This very distinctive sound is often heard when two or more bangles made of this popular plastic are worn at the same time.
Try gently tapping two pieces of another type of plastic together, and compare the sound to two pieces of true Bakelite the next time you're out shopping where this type of plastic is on display. You'll need to do other tests to confirm, but this is a good starting point.
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Identifying by Weight
Consider the weight of a piece of plastic jewelry. Bakelite feels heavier when compared to some other types of plastics, like celluloid.
Hold another type of plastic you have identified in one hand, and a piece you know to be Bakelite of approximately the same size in the other. You will often notice the heavier feel of Bakelite. Again, more testing will be required to confirm, but this is another good test to know when out shopping in the field.
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The Smell Test
Rub the item in question vigorously with your thumb until you feel the plastic heat up. Then, before it cools, take a whiff. A distinct chemical odor similar to formaldehyde will linger with most genuine Bakelite. This often takes a bit of practice, but it works well for many people while out shopping.
With pieces like the clip shown here, the wood may be damaged and discolored if it gets wet. If wood is present, it's best to stick to other methods of testing only the Bakelite portion of the piece—avoid immersing it in hot water.
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Using Simichrome Polish
Simichrome Polish is a non-abrasive cream formulated to clean metals. You can also use it to test Bakelite for authenticity, and this is the preferred method for many plastics collectors (although others prefer the hot water test mentioned above).
To test with Simichrome, sparingly apply a dab of the cream to a soft cloth and gently rub a small spot on the inside or back of the item being tested. If it is Bakelite, the cloth should turn yellow with ease (although the color may vary from light to dark). If a piece is lacquered, it may test negative. Black Bakelite pieces often fail this test as well. Following up with the hot water test when you get home is an option to consider.
Bakelite testing pads are also an alternative to carrying a tube of Simichrome polish with you when you shop. These easy-to-stow pads provide a similar result to Simichrome or the 409 method mentioned below, and have proven to be quite reliable.Continue to 5 of 6 below.
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Using Formula 409 Cleaner
Scrubbing Bubbles was once the standard cleaner to use for Bakelite testing, but Formula 409 is now recommended instead. To use, dampen a cotton swab with 409 and rub it gently on the inside of the item being tested. If it is Bakelite, the swab will turn yellow.
If a piece is lacquered, it may test negative with 409. Black Bakelite pieces often fail this test as well. Use the other tests above, especially the hot water test, to confirm authenticity if a piece you strongly suspect to be Bakelite fails with 409.
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Inspect the Piece Closely
Look for wear like scratches and patina that new pieces of plastic don't normally exhibit. Also, look for tiny chips on the edges of carvings. Examine the piece with a jeweler's loupe or another type of magnifier, if needed. Generally, an old piece of Bakelite will exhibit some minor scratching and wear, even if it is in excellent condition by a collector's standards and may be quite valuable.
Also, keep in mind that Bakelite will not have mold seams that can be present in other types of plastic jewelry. With some practice, you'll learn to use all your senses to correctly identify Bakelite.