Bakelite, The First Modern Plastic

Bakelite, The First Modern Plastic 2121 1414 Gaslight Square Shoppes

bakelite bracelets

Polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride is the tongue-twister of a name for the collectible plastic we know more popularly as Bakelite. This multipurpose wonder of the early 20th century is a fixture of antique store display cases. It’s also a joy and curse for collectors who may be stymied by similar materials and common reproductions. 

What Is Bakelite?

As you probably guessed from the chemical name above, Bakelite is a type of plastic. It’s made by combining phenol and formaldehyde at a specific heat and pressure. Chemist Leo Baekeland discovered it somewhat by accident when he tried to create a chemical shellac. Bakelite can be tinted, cast, molded, and carved to create everything from telephones and lighting mounts to car parts and, of course, jewelry.

Genuine or Fake?

Whether because of its smooth, pleasing finish or the Art Deco style of many items made with Bakelite, it has endured for decades as a collectible material, particularly in its decorative and jewelry uses. This popularity (and accompanying high prices) have made a ripe market for fakes. Add to that the variety of similar vintage plastic materials such as Catalin and you clearly need to figure out how to identify the real deal.

Hmmm.. What’s That Smell?

Because of the formaldehyde in it, warm Bakelite will give off a bit of that smell, perhaps taking you back to that high school biology class. The easiest way to generate it is to quickly rub a finger back and forth to create a little friction and then take a whiff — this is the easiest to do if you’re out shopping. If you already have the piece at home and it can safely get wet, dip the piece in very hot (not boiling!) water, and check for the telltale formaldehyde-like odor. 

Reaction Test

Another method if you’re at home is to dip a cotton swab in some Formula 409 or Simichrome Metal Polish. Then you simply rub a hidden spot very gently. If the swab has turned yellowish, you probably have Bakelite, though some genuine pieces may test negatively if they’ve been lacquered.

No Pins!

Whatever you do, do not use the old trick of poking a piece of suspected Bakelite with a hot pin. At best, you may damage the piece, but you may also set a celluloid piece on fire or worse. 

Beautiful Bakelite Jewelry

Bakelite jewelry was most popular in the first half of the 20th century. It really ran the gamut from Woolworth’s to Chanel. With a heyday in the 1920s and ’30s, most Bakelite jewelry features Art Deco designs primarily in reds, greens, yellows, and browns. Fancier designs could be carved, reverse-carved, or comprised of several colors laminated together. Although almost any type can be found, bangles and brooches are the most common pieces. 

What’s Your Bakelite Worth?

As with many antiques, prices for Bakelite can be anywhere from a few dollars for a button to tens of thousands for a Bakelite radio and everywhere in-between. The average Bakelite bangle might set you back $20-30. Also true of many antiques, value generally rises when a piece is:

  • More intricately made – reverse carving, elaborate lamination like a bow-tie
  • Involves multiple materials – metal cladding, 
  • Made by a known designer 
  • Is exceptionally attractive
  • Has an unusual or uncommon shape or style

Once you experience how smooth and pleasing genuine Bakelite is, you’ll want to start your own collection for sure!