How do I Know If It’s really Bakelite? If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been asked this question, I could be wearing some very expensive Bakelite! But I’m always glad when someone asks because it is really important to know how to spot fake Bakelite. Especially if you are thinking about starting your own collection.
Bakelite jewelry is highly collectible which makes it a great target for fraud, both of the intentional and unintentional kind. Today some are producing Bakelite in China using the original formula. along with some other Asian countries. While some eastern European are producing this new Bakelite as well.
There are unscrupulous dealers who knowingly sell other plastic jewelry as Bakelite. Then there is “fakelite” jewelry where unscrupulous dealers treat plastics in a chemical bath. A treatment which will make the piece appear to test as Bakelite. Finally, there are sellers who simply have no idea what they’re selling, but label it as Bakelite anyway.
There are several ways to determine whether a piece of plastic is Bakelite or not. The methods we can group into 3 categories. Chemical tests, Visual examination, and how the piece sounds and feels. Generally speaking, most consider Chemical testing the most valid method to determine Bakelite. Yet actually a large percentage of Bakelite will not pass a chemical test. This is why it’s important to know how true Bakelite looks, feels and sounds.
Chemical Testing to Spot Fake Bakelite
Chemical testing is a process to detect the presence of certain chemicals present in Bakelite, such as formaldehyde. Over time Bakelite develops a patina, much like metal does. The unique chemicals used to make Bakelite interact with the environment (sun, perfumes, lotions, etc.). Which over time changes and darken the surface color.
This patina contains traces of formaldehyde and other chemicals unique to Bakelite. So what you are really testing is the patina, not the Bakelite itself. This means that newly made, or refinished, Bakelite will not give you a positive chemical test.
While there are several fairly common products that others recommend for chemically testing Bakelite I only use Simichrome Metal Polish. Simichrome is a pink polish designed for cleaning metals of all types. But when you put a small amount on a Q-tip or paper towel and swipe your piece of Bakelite it will leave a nicotine yellow (brownish yellow) stain on the testing material (not on the Bakelite).
While some people use Scrubbing Bubbles or 409 Cleaner to do a chemical test for Bakelite. I find that these substances can dull the surface where they have been applied. Simichrome, on the other hand, will not harm Bakelite and can even safely clean dirty Bakelite pieces
Visual Testing to Spot Fake Bakelite
One of the problems with chemical testing regards testing at the marketplace. You will find some sellers will allow you to test a piece of Bakelite. Or will even offer to test it for you. Still, others will feel you are questioning their expertise. While not allowing you to test.
Until you’ve handled a lot of Bakelite and feel experienced in the areas of visual, sound and feel testing, I would avoid purchasing from dealers who do not allow testing. So now we move on to the large number of ways that you can visually authenticate a piece of Bakelite jewelry.
The first visual test is color. Original Bakelite with its patina from age generally has warm, autumn colors. Rich greens, deep yellows and oranges, chocolates and dark browns. While reds may range from cherry to deep maroons and cranberry. Some pieces that appear black, will really be a very dark green or blue when seen close up.
Vintage Bakelite does not appear in white, blue, pink or purple. As the oxidization of these colors (that patina thing) causing them to appear as other colors. Also, there is no clear Bakelite; it has changed to what we call apple juice (although some transparent Bakelite may appear to be clear).
The newly produced Bakelite coming from other countries is generally off in appearance. They are trying to manufacture Bakelite to imitate vintage plastic. Without actually developing a patina over time. As a result, the colors never look quite right. I suggest that you look at a lot of Bakelite and familiarize yourself with how the aged plastic looks.
Spot Fake Bakelite by the Carvings
A second visual test is to observe carved pieces of Bakelite. Vintage Bakelite carving Artist used a variety of tools, often using an assembly line method. Although occasionally one artist may carve a complete piece, most of the time there was an assembly line. Where a person would work on one section or do one type of carving and then pass it down the line. Either way, human beings make mistakes and these mistakes can be seen in every carved piece of Old Bakelite.
Sometimes the distance between designs on a single piece will vary, or spaces between carved lines are not consistent. Designs will match but won’t be exactly alike. There are no perfectly carved vintage Bakelite pieces.
Modern Bakelite or “fakelite” is carved using computer guided tools and each piece is identical and precise. Look closely at carved pieces every chance you get and see how many carving errors you can find. It’s these errors that make them one-of-a-kind and increase our interest.
Carving patterns are also an important part of identifying vintage Bakelite. Since most Bakelite jewelry was made during the late ’20s into the 30’s patterns tend toward the Art Deco style. Geometric designs were very popular as well as those from nature, such as flowers, vines, and leaves.
Most of the newly made Bakelite is highly carved but uses designs not seen in original Bakelite, such as Hawaiian Tiki motifs, skulls, and facial features. Again, the more Bakelite jewelry you examine the more familiar you’ll become with the types of patterns used.
Using Tool Marks and Seams to Spot Fake Bakelite
Whereas, molded plastic is uniformly smooth inside and outside the design areas. While there are some carved Lucite pieces, most Lucite and more modern plastic jewelry are molded and not carved.
Even though a small amount of molded Bakelite jewelry was produced, those pieces are very rare and you most likely will not see it in any quantity.
Some other visual tests for Bakelite include a lack of seams or mold lines (these were removed in the polishing process).
Also, in Bakelite bangles and bracelets, marbling will appear to be mostly horizontal on the exterior wall but run vertically on the interior wall.
And finally, most vintage Bakelite will show some surface wear. If you look closely at the surface you should see light scuffing or scratches or maybe a tiny nick near a carved area or the edge of a bangle. These beautiful pieces have been around for a while, which is part of their appeal.
Using Sound to Spot Fake Bakelite
Now for a few words about the sound and feel of original Bakelite. If you knock two pieces of Bakelite together you should hear a thunking sound. This is as true for brooches as it is for bangles. Modern plastic makes a clinking sound when you tap it because it’s generally harder and lighter than Bakelite. Bakelite has a nice smooth feel and feels heavy for its size. Experience is your best teacher, so thunk away!
A Final Word on How to Spot Fake Bakelite
To end this piece I’d like to discuss what’s referred to as “fakelite”. There is resin plastic jewelry being produced and marketed, both over the internet and in shops, which resembles Bakelite jewelry but is sold as Fakelite. This is fine as far as it goes, but you can bet that some unscrupulous seller will buy this and attempt to sell it as Bakelite. This is where common sense comes into play. If a seller has large quantities of similar pieces of jewelry, they are probably not Bakelite. Ask the seller to test the pieces and he or she will refuse since they will not test.
The other kind of “fakelite” is being produced overseas, generally in the same places that modern Bakelite is being made. This is plastic resin jewelry, generally in the form of bangles, which are soaked in a chemical bath. When these bangles are tested with Simichrome, they appear to leave the nicotine yellow stain. However, what your Q-tip or paper towel is really picking up is what the bangle was soaked in. If you remember your visual tests you will easily identify these as fakes because they are the wrong colors, and are perfectly carved in a more modern pattern.
I hope this helps you to better identify original vintage Bakelite. See, touch and examine as much Bakelite as you can and feel free to talk to dealers and ask questions. Finding out how much a seller knows can help you to determine whether or not they are a reliable source for vintage Bakelite. There are also lots of reference books, the best of which have lots of pictures that will help you identify colors and carving patterns. Have fun and Happy Hunting!