Bakelite expert Kim DeWitt Paff, owner and designer at KimLovesVintage.com and BakeliteQueen.com, is a veteran when it comes to this cool collectible. Pronounced “bake-a-light,” she shares that as the first completely synthetic plastic, Bakelite was originally used as an industrial plastic for utilitarian objects that were needed for heat-resistant applications. It also surfaced in insulators, electric plugs, radios, game pieces, writing implements, flatware and knife handles, napkin rings, shade pulls, and even heels for shoes because it was so strong and durable. But today Bakelite is most memorable and recognized as punchy, colorful jewelry pieces. If you’d like to start collecting, here’s some very helpful info to know.
1. Bakelite was discovered by accident.
In 1907, chemist Leo Baekeland discovered a compound of carbolic acid and formaldehyde by accident. He tried to reheat the solidified compound, but try as he might, he found that it would not melt, no matter how high the temperature. Named after Leo, Bakelite jewelry was in production as early as 1919 by a company called Embed Art, a collaboration between Baekeland and his assistant.
2. Bakelite had more than one name.
When the Bakelite patent expired in 1927, it was acquired by the Catalin Corporation. They began mass production of Bakelite under the name “Catalin,” and that company was responsible for nearly 70% of all phenolic resins that exist today. Bakelite-Catalin was sold mainly to companies like Saks Fifth Avenue, Bonwit Teller, Woolworth's, and Sears. Bakelite had its heyday when wealthy society fell upon hard times during the Great Depression, and could no longer afford Tiffany diamonds or Cartier jewelry, Kim says. Bakelite-Catalin took up the market slack with its colorful, carved jewelry adorned with rhinestones. This jewelry was within the reach of all, and its popularity grew from the poorest to the wealthiest in society. In 1942, Bakelite-Catalin stopped sales of their costume jewelry in order to concentrate on the nation's wartime needs. The company produced thousands of products that found their way into the military. By the end of World War II, new technologies for molded plastics had been developed. These new products consisted of plastics such as Lucite, Fiberglass, Vinyl, and Acrylic. Bakelite fell out of favor and production was stopped in the 1950's due to the toxic nature of the production of the product. And so, Bakelite and Catalin became somewhat obsolete, except in the hearts of collectors who still pursue it today.
3. You can use your senses to test for real-deal Bakelite.
Smell: When Bakelite is heated, it has a very strong odor which comes from the carbolic acid in the composition. On some pieces, you can release the smell simply by rubbing them hard with your thumb and creating heat. Others will need very hot water to release the odor. On some, the odor is so faint you may not detect it.
Sound: When you tap two Bakelite pieces together, they will make a deep clunking sound, rather than the higher pitched clack of acrylic or Lucite plastics. This test is the most unreliable because the density of the items affects the sound you hear.
Cleaning Products: Products like Formula 409, Scrubbing Bubbles, and Simichrome work very well to test whether an item is Bakelite. Make sure the item is clean, wet the end of a Q-tip with the cleaning product, then touch it to the piece. If the Q-tip turns yellow, then the piece is genuine. If you believe a piece is Bakelite, but it doesn't pass the cleaning product test, don't count it out. Sometimes polished Bakelite will not react or pass the test.
Bakelite Testing Pads: These are great when you are out shopping and handy to have in your purse. You can test questionable vintage Bakelite pieces with ease. The pad is simply rubbed onto the piece, and if a nicotine-colored stain appears, the test is positive. These Bakelite testing pads can be used over and over and last a very long time. (Kim sells these pads through her Etsy shop).
4. Be very gentle with Bakelite.
Vintage Bakelite will break, so try to avoid dropping or rough handling of Bakelite pieces, Kim says. “I know the heartbreak of dropping a special Bakelite bracelet and having it break. It can be repaired, but that is timely and expensive,” she adds. In addition to treating it gently, a Bakelite piece can be easily washed, according to Kim. “I have vintage Bakelite flatware that I occasionally use, and I put it in the dishwasher with no problems. I would probably not dishwash it daily; hand-washing is preferable,” she notes. “Clean your Bakelite with plain, old dish soap and rinse it with water. Dry it as soon as possible.”
5. Prices are better than they have been in years.
Kim says that Bakelite prices have dipped a bit in the past few years, but rare and unusual pieces have held their value. These can include deeply carved, dotted, and larger pieces. “Collectors who are just getting started can easily build a decent collection at fair prices,” Kim says. “I always say buy the best you can afford or save and wait for pieces that you really want. Don't buy something mediocre unless it is an incredible value you can use to trade up to something better—buy something that makes your heart sing!”
PHOTOS Courtesy of Kim DeWitt Paff
WORDS Shelby Deering