There are many types of collectible plastics. Distinguishing their traits and characteristics can be challenging.
Bakelite is the most popular and most widely collected vintage plastic. In 1909, Dr. Leo Baekeland patented the process of making Bakelite out of phenol formaldehyde. Bakelite can be molded or carved into almost any shape. Because of its versatility, Bakelite was sometimes called “The Material of a Thousand Uses.” It was widely used for jewelry, crib toys, cutlery, kitchenware, napkin rings and containers. Because of its heat resistance, it was used in electrical devices and radios, too.
Bakelite was made in many colors. As it ages, it develops a patina that darkens or yellows the color.
Modern Bakelite artists make wonderful jewelry out of old Bakelite stock. They clearly mark their pieces and sell them as newly crafted items that are collectible in their own right. Carving old Bakelite yourself produces a dangerous dust, so leave this to professionals.
There are several simple tests to determine if a piece is made of Bakelite. Always clean the surface of the piece with a damp cloth or your test results may be misleading.
1. Rub the item vigorously with your thumb until you feel the plastic heat up. Warmed Bakelite will produce a distinctive formaldehyde odor, similar to the medicinal smell of an old Band-Aid. Some find this test to be more effective by holding the piece under hot tap water. This smell test works especially well with Bakelite bangle bracelets.
2. Bakelite is denser than other plastics. A Bakelite piece will feel heavier than other plastics of comparable size.
3. Listen for the telltale “clunk” when two pieces of Bakelite are tapped together.
4. There are no mold marks in Bakelite pieces.
5. To test by chemical, dip a cotton swab in Formula 409 household cleaner and touch a small area of the piece that won’t be visible. If the piece is vintage Bakelite, the patina will show up as a yellow stain on the cotton swab. (EXCEPTION: black bakelite does not always turn yellow.) Quickly rinse the cleaner off the tested spot.
6. A safer chemical test uses Simichrome metal polish, which can be purchased at most hardware stores. Dip a cloth in Simichrome and rub gently on a non-visible part of the object. If it is Bakelite, it will leave a yellow residue on the polishing cloth – even black Bakelite! Try not to over-polish with Simichrome because it will remove the patina.
7. There is a material out there called Fakelite. It can be distinguished by a chalky appearance in the ridges of carving. This looks like dust, but will not wash away.
Celluloid jewelry dates to about 1900 and was quite popular during the Art Deco period. Celluloid items tend to be thinner and lighter than Bakelite. Celluloid can be damaged by moisture, temperature extremes or chemicals. To test Celluloid, dip an inconspicuous edge of the piece into hot tap water for three seconds. Celluloid will smell like vinegar or camphor.
Lucite is a resin created by DuPont in 1937. It was widely used in jewelry and accessories. While still produced, its popularity peaked in 1940-1953. Lucite feels slick and light. It has no odor.
French Galalith, also know as French Bakelite, is a milk-based plastic. It feels solid and weighty like Bakelite, but does not respond to typical testing.