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In the first half of the 20th century, Bakelite was used widely for game pieces, billiard balls, phones, jewelry, buttons and more. The later development of other plastics makes it sometimes hard to tell at first glance if an object is made from Bakelite or not.
However there are a few fairly simple ways of determining whether your chunky bangle bracelet, button collection or vintage flatware is made up of this gorgeous early plastic.
Identifying Out In The Field
You’re out on the vintage hunt and come across a…bangle bracelet, let’s say. Take a quick look at it and notice if there are any seams in the plastic. If there are, its not Bakelite. Quick elimination test.
Genuine Bakelite pieces were cast, not molded and seamed.
Next step. Try to rub the bracelet with your thumb until an area warms up. Then smell it. I really try to do this unobtrusively…for obvious reasons -what would you think about somebody who’s sniffing the jewelry?? 😉 If it smells chemical-like, like formaldehyde, most likely it’s Bakelite.
If the piece passes these two tests, and the price is right, bring the piece home for further testing.
Testing at Home
Now, you may have heard of the hot needle test for testing Bakelite. Please! For the love of all that’s vintage, please don’t do this! While it’s true that Bakelite won’t melt…you could still leave a burn mark. And your non-Bakelite pieces will now have a hole in them! They may still be collectible even if they’re not Bakelite. I have found so MANY buttons with melted ‘holes’ on the back of them. So sad.
My go-to testing agent for identifying Bakelite is a material called Simichrome polish. I’ve heard you can buy it at hardware stores, etc but I usually just buy it online. It’s a metal polish so BONUS!! I use it to polish my flatware as well. 🙂
Simichrome polish is pink.
Put a small amount on a Q-tip and rub it on the bracelet or whatever piece of suspected Bakelite you want to test.
Now look at your cotton swab tip. If the pink polish has turned yellow, the bracelet is Bakelite.
TIP: If you don’t have any Simichrome polish yet (I do recommend picking some up) then I’ve heard the plain Formula 409 works in the same way. I’ve even some dealers have used baking soda with similar results. I prefer to use the polish because it’s a small tube I can just keep by my desk. Plus most buyers are familiar with Simichrome and you can mention it to add legitimacy to your listing.
Sometimes the yellow result is very dark and other times it’s not. Sometimes the piece needs cleaning before you can test.
So that’s it! Once you have a few confirmed-by-Simichrome pieces you can examine them and the identifying will get a lot easier. At home you can run the piece under hot water (maybe not a Bakelite radio, lol) and release the ‘formaldehyde’ smell easier. Once you get familiar with the smell…you’ll spot it easier in the field. Bakelite pieces also have a certain feel and look. They also clunk a certain way when you tap them together. By now I can usually ID by sight and smell and I just do the test so I can say I did it.
Bakelite is a fun and highly collectible material. Enjoy the hunt!