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"Bakelite - A Vintage Statement"

The casual shopper will stop and look at a piece of Bakelite jewelry because of its costume appeal, but I assure you that there is more to its history then meets the eye. There are also some things that you will need to look out for including the replicas that are flooding the market these days which some call Fakelite. I will give you a few small tests you can do to tell if you have the real deal.

In 1907 a Belgian chemist by the name of Dr. Leo Hendrik Baekeland, who at the time was living in New York, patented the chemical compound now known as Bakelite. This compound consisted of a thermoset plastic made from phenol formaldehyde which included fillers of rags, woods, cotton, and in some instances, asbestos in order to make the product stronger, with better durability and more cost efficient for the customer.

Bakelite was used for many products between 1907 and 1927 including toys, jewelry, radios, utensil and pot handles and even castings for televisions. The Bakelite products are very opaque and the colors are usually very dark due to the fillers in the product. Butterscotch and Pea Green are the most common colors of Bakelite jewelry and usually the least expensive. On the other end of the spectrum, figural pins and multiple colored bangles laminated together might pinch the pocketbook a bit more, yet there is still a vast array of reasonably priced items to choose from on the market. Most Bakelite bangles and clip earrings are priced just right for the casual collector, usually under a hundred dollars.

“End of the day” pieces are quite a find. This jewelry has numerous colors that are swirled together. This plastic was made at the end of the day when leftover batches were mixed together so that it wouldn’t be wasted.

Be on the lookout for what some experts are calling “Fakelite”. These products are usually spectacular reproductions of the originals and very hard to spot. This jewelry is cast and hand-carved like Bakelite, but without the quality of the original, as it is made with a type of resin material. These Fakelite items are being sold in high volume and are now filtering into the hands of unknowing dealers who are selling them as the real thing. Beware when you buy. Ask the dealer specific questions about the pieces you are interested in buying. Take your time and research the product. There are also a few simple tests you can do to check the authenticity of Bakelite jewelry.

The first thing to try is the friction test. All you have to do is rub your thumb back and forth on the piece until it gets hot. Once it is hot, smell the plastic. It should have the scent of formaldehyde which is quite distinct.

Then next thing to try is the 409 challenge. Dampen a Q tip with 409 cleaning solution and rub it on an inconspicuous part of the jewelry. The Q tip should emerge with a bright yellow color. Make sure to rinse off the jewelry immediately after because the solution could damage the finish of the piece.

Also be sure to check your piece thoroughly because Bakelite will never have a seam or mold lines. Another indicator of Fakelite is if the jewelry is white because the real article has a yellow patina which will develop over the years.

Some of the Fakelite pieces may actually pass some of the tests so be sure to try multiple methods of testing when checking the piece you wish to purchase.

Bakelite has not always been vintage, yet it will remain a fashion statement for years to come.

Erik J. Ekstrom

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