Friday, August 25, 2006

Bakelite Jewelry - Information and How to Test

Bone colored Bakelite Dog Head pin
If you like Bakelite jewelry, you know how expensive it can be. You'll want to know a bit of history so you can buy with knowledge, and also how to test to be certain you are really getting Bakelite.

Bakelite was created by Dr. Leo Baekland around 1909, when he was experimenting with elements to creat a new varnish. He used phenol and formaldehyde under pressure and heat, and inadvertently discovered the first plastic ever made from polymers - Bakelite!

His new invention produced durability and hardness as well as heat resistence. Because of it's versatility, it was sometimes called "The Material of a Thousand Uses". One of it's best properties was that it was castin a mold, it couldn't be melted.

The 1930s were the heyday of Bakelite jewelry. It was not expensive, and during the Great Depression it was used in a wide variety of ways to copy natural materials like tortoise shell, ivory, amber and other higher cost jewelry. The most carved or brightest or multi-color pieces of Bakelite were very desirable during those years of the Depression. Now they are hard to find and bring the biggest prices!

Bakelite Testing Methods

There are dos and don'ts of testing Bakelite. Here are some suggestions.


Hot Pin Method - Some people still think that it's okay to use a the sharp point of a red-hot pin to test Bakelite. The belief is that since Bakelite is heat-resistant, it won't burn or melt when the hot pin is applied.

However, if one applied a red hot pin to Bakelite, it won't melt but it will show a dark mark at the point of contact. A heated pin means either that - if it's not Bakelite - it will melt anad therefore damage the item, OR, if Bakelite, it will show that permanent dark mark. Either way, the item is greatly devalued with this test.

Scrubbing Bubbles - Many believe that applying the bathroom cleaner Scrubbing Bubbles is the answer to testing Bakelite. Not so. Rubbing Bakelite with this cleaner can get you a yellowish streak on the applying cloth, telling you that it is genuine Bakelite. However, it also can mean that you just have dirt on a plastic jewelry piece that happens to be yellowish - as in nicotine from a smoker's home. Unfortunately, Scrubbing Bubbles is a harsh chemical and strips the finish from Bakelite. This makes a nice shiny original finish now a dull, lack-lustre finish. This method of testing is definitely not-recommended.

DO Use these Testing Methods

The 409 Method - This is one of the more widely accepted tests for Bakelite jewelry. Using a cotton swab, apply the cleaner 409. You will get the yellow streak associated with real Bakelite. Be sure to first wash the piece being tested with mild dish detergent and warm water, so the streak you are looking for isn't dirt. Don't soak the piece in water - it may weaken the glue holding the findings. Just wash it quickly and dry it immediately. The yellow streak can be anything from pale yellow to a rich yellow-orange, but on a clean piece of Bakelite, it's a good way to test for the real thing.

Simichrome Polish - Another good test is using the silver cleaner Simichrome Polish. A little bit goes a long way - you don't need much. Again, you are looking for a yellow streak to show it's Bakelite. Don't forget to wash your test piece first.

Even better, using Simichrome means that you'll be polishing your test piece. Even if it's not Bakelite, it will look better being polished to a shiny finish!!

simi.jpg (17787 bytes)

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