What is Bakelite jewelry?
Bakelite is a type of plastic, made almost entirely out of phenol and was a popular material for jewelry making. Collectors and vintage lovers as it has a nice heavy feel and does not scratch easily.
Bakelite jewelry was produced from the 1920s until World War II. And still today, several collectors are interested in buying Bakelite items.
The first production of our current decorative plastic started in 1907 when Leo Baekeland invented the Bakelite process.
He discovered that adding formaldehyde and phenol to carbolic acid created a new type of material that was very hard, could resist high temperatures, and had an attractive appearance.
He named his invention Bakelite after himself, although his first patent application for molding was not approved for this reason.
Bakelite jewelry was produced both in pendants, brooches, and rings.
The technique involved pressing out or stamping shapes from an appropriately colored Bakelite powder compound and then adapted according to model and design.
After the shape had been formed, it would be heated in an oven at about 150-180 degrees Celsius, before being polished again. Then it could be decorated with enamel colors (enameling) if required or lacquered; this did not hold up well and was easily scratched.
Bakelite jewelry was popular throughout the 1930s and produced in vast quantities for this period. After World War II, Bakelite lost its appeal and was superseded by other plastics, such as Catalin, and Lucite which were lighter and did not discolor over time (yellowing).
Some of the old Bakelite designs can be seen through modern imitations, although these are usually somewhat different in composition.
Today there is a growing interest among vintage jewelry collectors for Bakelite jewelry. Unfortunately, today’s inferior imitations do not find much favor among them because they cannot replace the genuine beauty of real Bakelite jewelry from that period.
When buying such items it is recommended to only buy from an established dealer so you will be sure to receive a genuine item that has a fair market value.
Regarding a specific price for Bakelite jewelry, it’s difficult to estimate due to the large variety of designs and production methods used.
On average, you can expect to pay between $5 and $15 per piece depending partly on the design. But the price is mostly dictated by individual manufacturing techniques which were used when it was produced.
In addition, if you want to buy from an established dealer, the prices will be higher than from your regular sources, such as internet auctions or yard sales.
Is Bakelite jewelry marked?
Because of its vintage look, many items are passed off as Bakelite that is not made of Bakelite. This includes new plastics made to look like Bakelite and old vintage pieces that have been painted or dyed after being manufactured.
Bakelite jewelry will be marked with either “Bakelight” on the metal part, or with “Bakelit.”
If there is no mark, it is probably not real Bakelite.
What Other Plastics Are Similar To Bakelite?
Several other types of plastics can be confused with Bakelite including, Catalin, Nuolux, and Catalin-B.
Catalin is a registered trademark of General Electric for a material that was formulated in the late 1930s to imitate Bakelite.
Once largely abandoned, there has been a recent resurgence of interest in Catalin jewelry because it is lightweight/cheap, easy to work with, and can be colored easily. Some types of Catalin will fade or discolor when left out in the sun too long.
Catalin (Formaldehyde resin) isn’t as durable as Bakelite. It glues & finishes much as wood does – it’s better suited to things like canes than items that come into contact with skin since the formaldehyde may cause allergic reactions after prolonged exposure.
You can test it by applying a drop of household ammonia in an inconspicuous area – if the plastic turns yellow, you’ve got Catalin.
Nuolux is another type of bakelite replacement produced by colorizing materials containing phenolic resin or Novolac resin.
It isn’t as tough as actual Bakelite plastics and abrades easily, but has better clarity than other types of plastic materials. Novolac resin can also have good electrical properties, making lenses for transistors easier to produce.
Other resins that look like Bakelite include Polystyrene, which was used in the 1920s to 1930s as Bakelite’s cheaper novelty replacement. It’s lighter and more transparent than bakelite but is known for crazing – where it looks like alligator skin after coming into contact with certain types of liquid chemicals. Celluloid can look very much like Bakelite depending on the type of pattern molded into it.
Each resin has its own fabrication needs, so pay attention to what your material tells you about using household chemicals or similar items when working with each type of resin/plastic. Remember that”Bakelite” is not a generic name – any plastic that has Phenolic/Novolac resins will be marked as such!
Is It Safe To Wear Bakelite Jewelry?
Yes, there are no known health hazards associated with the use of vintage bakelite jewelry.
Bakelite emits non-toxic fumes if it becomes extremely hot, (from 400 F). To avoid such risks, many pieces of bakelite jewelry were designed with ventilation holes so that they would not become too hot when worn.
Bakelite is very durable plastic, but it can become brittle with age and crack when dropped or exposed to high heat.
Bakelite changes color when exposed to sunlight for long periods. Heating bakelite returns the material to its original color, hence “retro bakelite” or “bake-off” beads are used by some jewelers.
Summary: Though it is a safe material in itself, bakelite fumes can be dangerous when the piece becomes very hot and ventilation holes in older pieces discouraged this risk in the early 20th century.
Bakelite does change color when exposed to sunlight and heat so it is common practice among jewelers to bake items in a small oven which restores the item’s original color.
It is safe to wear your Bakelite jewelry as long as any ventilation holes are not covered.