Bakelite Jewelry and How to Test It?
by Preston Reuther
There are various types of jewelry that one can use to add a touch of glamor and color. One set of collectible jewelry that Art Deco lovers usually pay a lot of money for is made from Bakelite. Bakelite was accidently invented by Dr. Leo H. Baekeland around 1907 when he wasexperimenting with varnish. He was mixing phenol and formaldehyde under heat and pressure and ended up with a hard plastic, the first made from synthetic polymers.
Properties of Bakelite
Bakelite is hard, durable, does not conduct electricity, and is heat resistant. Once cast, it retains its shape. This means that it cannot be reheated to change its shape or remold it. Instead it was extruded in rough shapes and then artisans worked on the rough mold, producing a variety of objects from it. It had many uses including being used in old radios. At one time, the US Treasury even considered minting coins with it during the copper shortage of the Second World War.
Once Bakelite production techniques improved, jewelry manufacturers were able to produce it in many colors. This included ivory, amber, red and so on. At this point jewelry manufacturers started making many intricate jewelry designs using Bakelite. The craftsmen used the unfinished extruded Bakelite and carved their own unique designs on to them. As Bakelite jewelry was produced by hand instead of being poured into a mold, it was possible to produce limited edition jewelry patterns and designs as well.
Varieties of Bakelite Jewelry
One can find a variety of Bakelite jewelry items such as bracelets, necklaces, broaches, earrings, finger rings, and so on. The jewelry was made in a variety of colors to imitate ivory, coral, amber, jade, and other precious and semi-precious gems. They were much sought after even when they were first made and are now collector’s items priced from $20 to as high as $4,000 in some instances for the really rare Bakelite pieces.
Value of Bakelite Jewelry
Original Bakelite jewelry is much sought after by collectors of Art Deco objects and jewelry. The price of a piece depends on the intricacy of the workmanship, the way it has been preserved, and the rarity of a particular jewelry design. So the value of Bakelite jewelry changes from year to year depending on scarcity.
As with any object that is a collectible and has an increased value, there are spurious and imitation pieces available in the market as well. Some of the products are made of celluloid and are inflammable. Others pieces of Bakelite jewelry are made from recycled Bakelite. This means that though the product is made from genuine Bakelite, it has been crafted recently and is not as valuable as the older ones. If you are a collector of Bakelite jewelry you need to know how to identify the genuine pieces so that you are not cheated.
A FEW SIMPLE METHODS TO TEST BAKELITE JEWELRY
With a Pin
As Bakelite is resistant to heat, one can heat a pin and pierce the jewelry with it. If the jewelry is genuine Bakelite, the pin will be unable to penetrate the jewelry. However, you need to wear gloves and be careful when attempting this test since celluloid will burst into flame if the same test is applied to it. As such this is a test that should be used as a last resort.
One can also apply the heat test to jewelry if the seller claims it is Bakelite. Just rub the jewelry vigorously with your thumb until it is warm and smell the piece. If it smells of formaldehyde, then it is likely to be Bakelite. And the smell is very strong so you won’t be able to miss it! Smells very much like the chemical it is made with formaldehyde.
Formula 409 Test
If you are planning to purchase Bakelite jewelry regularly, you need to stock up on Formula 409 and some Q tips. When you want to test a piece of bakelite jewelry, first clean its surface with a damp cloth to remove dust and grime. Next dip a Q tip in Formula 409 and gently rub the tip on the inside or less visible side of the jewelry. If the product is made from Bakelite, the Q tip will become pale yellow even if the color of the jewelry is red or blue. Once you have determined the material, be sure to quickly and completely remove all traces of the formula before it damages the piece.
With Semi Chrome
Semi Chrome is another material that can be used to test for the authenticity of Bakelite jewelry. The major advantage with using semi chrome is that it only cleans the jewelry and does not damage it. Before you apply the semi chrome, clean the jewelry you want to test with a damp cloth. Once all the dust has been removed, gently apply some semi chrome to a soft cloth and use it to clean the jewelry. The patina will be removed and the jewelry will look bright and clean. The cloth should be tinged pale yellow or ivory even if the jewelry is colored green, blue, or red.
Old vs. New Bakelite Jewelry
While the tests described above will ensure that you can spot genuine Bakelite jewelry, you still need to find out if the jewelry is old or has been made recently. This can be determined by looking at the metal fittings and the finish of the product. Older Bakelite jewelry will have metal fittings that are fixed using screws. However, the newer ones will have the metal fittings embedded in the Bakelite or pasted on using glue. Another way of checking for the age of the Bakelite jewelry is to look at the finish.
In the older pieces, the craftsman would have finished the rough edges only in areas where it would be visible when worn. The underside will continue to have rough edges. Satellite images However, the newer models will have a smooth finish throughout.
If you are planning to start collecting Bakelite jewelry, you need to first familiarize yourself with the ways in which these can be identified using simple tests. This will ensure that you pay the right amount for each piece that you purchase and end up with an incredibly valuable collection of vintage Bakelite jewelry!