Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Junction Tuesdays (Holiday Delay Edition): Bakelite Basics

A Bakelite bracelet

I hope you all had a great Memorial Day and scored some awesome deals at one of the big thrift store sales (Unique and Value Village).  Last week I talked about the origins of costume jewelry during the 1930s and ‘40s and touched on the plastic Bakelite.  Jewelry make of Bakelite added a cheery note to a bleak time in our history.  Because of this, I think it deserves an entire Tuesday.

Belgian scientist Dr. Leo Baekeland invented Bakelite in 1909 after accidentally discovering the mixture of carbolic acid and formaldehyde.  When he tried to reheat the compound, he discovered it wouldn't melt, no matter how hot.

This extreme durability as well as its beauty made Bakelite’s uses limitless.  It was produced in a lot of different colors, but the most common were white, brown, green and red.   Pieces from the 1920s-1940s have since oxidized, completely changing their colors like white to butterscotch, light blue to forest green, and pink to orange.

Bakelite was a true “sign of the times.”  It was a cheerful, inexpensive depression-era novelty that allowed women the opportunity to enjoy jewelry during a time of financial hardship.  These pieces from the ‘20s to the ‘40s are highly sought-after and collectible.  

Although there are no scientific tests for Bakelite, I found a few that collectors use to prove its authenticity.

  •  Smell: When Bakelite is heated, it has a super strong smell. Try rubbing it hard with your thumb to heat and take a whiff.  It should smell acidic.  
  • Sound: Tap two Bakelite pieces together.  A deep clunking sound rather than the higher pitched clack of acrylic or Lucite plastics signifies Bakelite.  
  •  Hot Pin Test: I like this test the best.  Since Bakelite wont melt, take a very very hot pin (be careful!) then touch the pin to the BACK of the item. If it’s Bakelite it wont melt.  If it penetrates or melts the plastic then it’s not real. 
  • Formula 409 / Scrubbing Bubbles: Not very green, but a popular test.  Make sure the item is clean, wet the end of a Q-tip with Formula 409 then touch it to the BACK of the piece. If the Q-tip turns yellow then it’s genuine Bakelite.

Check back next Tuesday for tips and information about popular costume jewelry during the 50’s and 60’s!

-Shannan Fales is the owner of Junction at 1510 U Street NW.  She shares her expertise in vintage and thrift each Tuesday.


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