Vintage Bakelite Jewelry

Don't get taken by an imitation

Vintage bakelite jewelry definition
De Agostini / G. Cigolini / Getty Images

Bakelite is an item jewelry collectors should keep an eye out for considering how prices have risen over the last few decades. Authentic bakelite jewelry can sell for thousands of dollars, so it's important you learn how to tell the difference between genuine and imposter plastic jewelry. 

What Is Bakelite?

Bakelite is a castable, fire resistant plastic that was invented by Leo Baekeland in 1909. It was originally used for industrial purposes until jewelry makers found that its light weight made Bakelite a perfect choice for designing and manufacturing inexpensive bracelets, rings, pins and other jewelry.

Bakelite jewelry became especially popular in the 1930's and 1940's after a wider assortment of colors was introduced. The new batch of Bakelite colors captured the imagination of more and more jewelry companies. Coco Chanel was one famous designer who offered Bakelite jewelry and accessories.

How Is Bakelite Made?

Bakelite is made using a combination of phenol and formaldehyde. These and other materials are put through molds which form rods. These rods are then further polished and transformed. This process differs from plastic now because of the hand finishing. Plastic jewelry made today would likely be poured into an intricate and exact mold. Bakelite, on the other hand, would be hand carved or polished into its final design.

Do Other Materials Look Like Bakelite?

Bakelite is the trade name for the plastic product produced by the Bakelite Corporation, but materials made using the same formula were eventually sold under other trade names in the US and around the world.

Celluloid and Lucite are two other plastics used to make jewelry. They can resemble Bakelite, but Bakelite items of the same size are heavier. Celluloid predates bakelite and often has a very fragile, thin, and translucent appearance. Lucite was created in the 1930's and has an entirely clear appearance.

 

How Can I Tell if My Jewelry Is Genuine Bakelite?

Method #1: Some Bakelite collectors recommend the 409 Test. Here's how to do it:

  1. Dip a cotton swab in 409 household cleaner and touch a small area of the piece, such as a back that won't be visible when worn.
  2. If the piece is vintage Bakelite, the accumulated patina will show up as a yellow stain on the cotton swab.
  3. Rinse the cleaner off the tested spot right away.

Method #2: Some collectors recommend you place the jewelry in hot water, then remove and sniff. Warmed Bakelite smells like camphor.

Bakelite Imitations

There are newly manufactured imitations out there, so beware. Linda Grossman, of Evelynne's Oldies But Goodies, deals in vintage Bakelite and other collectible jewelry. Here's what she has to say about the fakes:

"We are dismayed that there is a cottage industry that has been created with the production of Fakelite, which has the appearance of Bakelite. On close examination, and to the trained eye, these items are not vintage Bakelite, but sometimes they have been treated in ways to make them pass the commonly used Bakelite tests (409 and hot water). We recommend that you purchase Bakelite only from a reputable, experienced dealer."

Sometimes Bakelite Is New and ​Old

Some jewelry makers are creating new Bakelite jewelry out of larger pieces of vintage Bakelite, such as radios, which were very popular during Bakelite's heyday. Some of the pieces are quite attractive, and most of these craftspeople are honest about the jewelry's origins. If you pass the jewelry on to someone else, please be sure they know it is a newly handcrafted item made from vintage Bakelite.

Here are a few books that can help you learn more about Bakelite:

How Much Is Bakelite Jewelry Worth?

It depends on the piece, and the demand for specific collectibles is an ever-changing thing. Search for Bakelite on eBay to get an idea of current pricing. Read the descriptions carefully--some are fakes.

Don't be afraid to ask the seller for verification that the piece is truly Bakelite, and always check a seller's feedback rating before you bid.

Edited by: Lauren Thomann