Written by Cynthia Findlay Antiques.
Bakelite is one of the most collectible pieces of vintage jewellery. One of the earliest plastics made from synthetic elements, it was created by Leo Bakelite in 1907 and quickly became a symbol of modern style and a turn away from Victorian era fashion designs. But to the untrained eye, Bakelite may not look much different from modern plastic. In fact, some sellers of estate jewellery can sell modern plastic items as vintage Bakelite pieces — either accidentally or on purpose.
It’s important to know how to identify Bakelite jewellery from regular plastic. The easiest way to discover if a piece is Bakelite is to swab it with a Q-tip coated in a cleaning solution such as 409. If the jewellery is made from Bakelite, it will make the Q-tip slightly yellow. This is because the Bakelite oxidizes over time and the process will leave this yellow stain when bathroom cleaner is applied. Modern plastics will not leave a stain, or a stain that is the same color as the jewellery.
Bakelite also gives off a strong odor that resembles formaldehyde when it is heated. You can do this by rubbing the jewellery between your fingers for 30 seconds or by holding it older hot water for 15 to 20 seconds. Even if you don’t have physical access to the jewellery, you can use photos to help determine the authenticity of jewellery. Bakelite is known for not wearing and scratching over time. If you see scratches, scrapes or other fading on the jewellery in a photo, it probably isn’t Bakelite.