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EARLY JEWELRY PLASTICS & Testing for Bakelite

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Most questions on early plastics are How Can I Test For Bakelite?  What Are Some Differences Between the Plastics?  When Was It First Produced?  In this guide I will give some information on the history of early plastics, what they are actually made of, some examples of each kind made into vintage jewelry, and testing methods for Bakelite.  There will also be a glossary of terms added to the bottom in the event there is a word of term you are unfamiliar with.

 

HISTORY OF EARLY PLASTICS

 

Celluloid

Celluloid was the first plastic.  The first Celluloid experiments began in 1856 by Alexander Parkes in Birmingham, England.  A residue remained after evaporating the solvent from photographic collodion.  He described this residue solid as a "hard, horny elastic and waterproof substance."  Later in the same year, he patented his invention "Parkesine" as a cloth waterproofing for woven fabrics.  By 1868, no advancement was achieved, and Parkes' labor and efforts were ended.

In 1869, Englishman Daniel Stills created a company called Xylonite to experiment and create a product similar to Parkesine.  These efforts ended in 1874 when Stills went bankrupt.

In the 1860's, American brothers John Wesley and Isaiah Hyatt began experimenting with cellulose nitrate in order to make billiard balls in a form other than ivory.  In 1869, John Wesley patented a way to coat the billiard balls with a combination of cloth, ivory dust, shellac, and collodion.  In 1870, the brothers started to experiment with camphor and patented a process of creating a "horn-like material."  Camphor was the key ingredient to make a plastic product from cellulose nitrate.  In 1872, Isaiah named the product "Celluloid," and it became a Hyatt product.

Many items were made of celluloid, however, its negative qualities were that it was easily combustible, and could spontaneously decompose.  Of the few modern items still made of celluloid are ping-pong balls.

There are some magnificent surviving specimens of vintage jewelry that used celluloid.  Usually the pieces have a very fragile and delicate look.  Often you can see right through the plastic (even if dyed) when held up to a bright light.

 

      

 

Bakelite

Between 1907 and 1909, Dr. Leo H. Baekeland was conducting experiments to create a varnish.  He was using phenol and formaldehyde, generally with a wood flour filler, and put the mixture under heat and pressure.  He accidentally discovered bakelite.  It was the first plastic made from synthetic polymers.

Bakelite's properties were its hardness, durability, nonconductiveness, and heat resistence.  Once it was molded and cast, it could not be melted.  It was often called "The Material of a Thousand Uses."  A little known fact about bakelite, is that in 1942, it was considered by the US Mint to make pennies due to copper's use during World War II.  Several designs were even made, but the bakelite penny stepped aside for the Steel penny of 1943.  The mint returned to recycled copper shell casings for the 1944 and 1945 pennies.

As costume jewelry, bakelite had its biggest boom in the 1930's during the Great Depression.  It was used to imitate tortoiseshell, coral, amber, ivory and other costly materials.  It was attractive to all levels of incomes, including the very rich.  Some designer bakelite pieces were made to sell to fine department stores in the $10 price range.  For the Great Depression, this was a phenomenal price for a piece of jewelry.  Those pieces were generally the brightest, most massive, and most highly carved items.  Due to their scarceness, they are the pieces that command the highest prices today.

Bakelite has a great deal of vintage jewelry specimens surviving.  These are sometimes brilliantly carved, and come in a vast array of colors.

 

    

   

Due to Bakelite's appeal, there are many recycled pieces that come into existence.  They are recycled from old telephones, radios, poker chips, etc.  Also, original vintage factory rods of bakelite are often used to newly carve pieces of desired jewelry in vintage styles.  These can be quite attractive.  The bakelite material *is* vintage, but the pieces are newly worked and polished, therefore, less valuable.

 

      

 

French Bakelite

Contrary to a lot of bakelite sellers, French Bakelite, or Galalith, *is* a vintage creation.  True Galalith was an early plasic, produced from milk proteins.  It is one of the oldest forms of plastic.  It was discovered in 1897 by two German researchers that realized milk casein could be solidified by adding a small amount of formaldehyde.  Galalith was primarily produced in France, but to a lesser degree in Germany.  Its production began in 1900, but was used most heavily in the 1920's to 1940's in buttons, some jewelry, and fountain pens. 

Real Galalith predates synthetic plastics, and the synthetics are why it ceased to be produced.  French Bakelite predates Bakelite by over a decade.  (1897 versus 1907-1909 when Dr. Baekeland accidentally invented bakelite by trying to create a varnish!!)  It differs from Bakelite in that it can NOT be molded.  It will not test like bakelite either, due to its composition.  The majority of French Bakelite production ceased after WWII. 

Some companies, however, have continued to carve vintage Galalith to make gorgeous pieces of jewelry.  These pieces are not cheap, and quality designers' pieces are top quality.  (As well as top dollar!)  Lea Stein and Pavone are two well recognized designers of French Bakelite Jewelry.  Lea Stein is often signed on the clasps.  Pavone is always signed on the back of the piece.  (Beware, these two companies have had knock-offs being made from China and New Jersey.  Make sure to check for signatures!  An unsigned piece has shoddy workmanship!)

 

 

 

 

Lucite

Lucite is actually a registered name that Dupont gave to their thermoset plastic invention in 1931.  It was discovered during a high-pressure experiment developed for ammonia production.  Experiments in thermoplastics began earlier in 1928 by a Germany-based company  Rohm & Haas Chemical Company.  They called their invention "Plexiglass."  Both Lucite and Plexiglass were in complete production by 1936, but Plexiglass was able to undercut Dupont's Lucite.

The polymer was in high demand during WWII for nosecones, windshields and other parts for fighter planes.  After WWII, the substance was found useful in the making of lamps, household goods, jewelry, etc.  It is similar to bakelite, in that it can not be melted or remolded once cast.

Lucite's name began to have more recognition, especially during the 1950's when they invented Acrylic coatings and finish lacquers.  They used the patented name "Lucite" in each of these inventions.  Therefore, most vintage jewelry made of thermoplastics, is called "Lucite" due to higher name exposure.  But the familiar terms of acrylic, thermoset plastic, plexiglass, etc. are synonomous with "Lucite."

Many varieties of jewelry using lucite, or thermoset plastics, are found today!  Most common are back-carved pieces, and "jelly bellies" which are highly sought after by collectors.  The pieces are often crystal clear transparent and often set with rhinestones and other gems.

 

      

 

 

TESTING FOR BAKELITE

 

There are many testing methods for bakelite, but not all are recommended.  Most recognized tests are:

    • Friction
    • Hot Water
    • Scrubbing Bubbles
    • Hot Pin
    • 409
    • Lemon Juice
    • Simichrome Polish

 

Friction Test

The friction test is most commonly used when you are at a flea market, yard sale, or antiques store and do not have access to other methods.  You simply rub the piece until your thumb feels hot, and sniff.  Bakelite gives off a very recognizeable chemical smell due to the formaldehyde.  In other words, it really stinks.  Do NOT get confused with the smell of attic, or dirt.  The only way I can personally describe it is you feel a "headrush" right between your eyes from the chemicals.

This test does not always work, of course.  It greatly depends on how well the piece was kept and stored.  Unfortunately, sometimes this is the only test you have the option of performing.

 

Hot Water

Similar to the friction test, in that you are trying to find the tell-tale smell of formaldehyde.  You hold a part of the item under very warm water for about 10-15 seconds.  Then smell it!  If the initial response is to grimace, and pull it away from your nose immediately, it is bakelite!

This is one of the most successful tests for Bakelite, but again, it is not fool-proof.  If the piece was newly polished, carved, or is highly dirty, you may get a false-negative.  Also, if a non-bakelite piece has been recently dyed or shellaced, you may get a false positive.  Also, beware of getting findings wet, as glue or other adornments could become weak.

 

Scrubbing Bubbles

Dow Bathroom Cleaner was often suggested for testing for Bakelite.  When a portion of the piece was rubbed with Scrubbing Bubbles, you would get a tell-tale yellow streak, regardless of the color of bakelite.  However, this method is highly discouraged, as it has harsh chemicals that strips finish, and can make a nice shiney surface dull and lacking lustre.

 

Hot Pin

This is another test that has been strongly discouraged!  The purpose of a hot-pin test was to take a pin that's tip has become red from a flame, and touch the tip to the piece.  The characteristics of bakelite makes it not melt.  However, there would be a dark, unsightly mark on where the piece was tested.  This greatly decreased the value of the piece.

This test was also preferred to test pieces of bakelite that appeared to be amber.  Amber gives off a faint pine-scent when touched with a hot pin.

Further difficulties of this test is that thermoset plastics also do not melt, which could confuse someone into thinking the item was bakelite!  Furthermore, if the piece of jewelry was celluloid, not only does this melt, it combusts easily!  You could easily burn yourself with dripping, flaming plastic that will not easily come off your skin or clothing!  People had been hurt and wound up with disfiguring scars.

 

409

409 has become one of the more widely acceptable tests.  It has replaced the scrubbing bubbles testing method.  If you soak a cotton swab in 409, and rub the piece, you will get the tell-tale yellow mark that ranges from pale canary yellow to more orange/yellow.

The downfall to 409, is a lot of people will confuse DIRT, or dirty pale brown, for yellow and get a false-positive.  409 does not strip the finish of the piece, but still always test on the back.  Also, clean the area with mild dish liquid or handsoap and warm water.  Dry with soft cloth.

 

Lemon Juice

Lemon Juice will not test for bakelite, so to speak.  However, bakelite was often made to look like coral.  A test to tell if a "coral" piece is plastic or real (and then to resume other tests) is to drop a small bit of lemon juice on it.  If it becomes effervescent, it is *real* coral.  If it does not bubble, resume other testing methods.

 

Simichrome Polish

Simichrome Polish is generally said to be the "expensive" method of testing for bakelite.  It is a pale tannish pink paste and is highly valued for its polishing qualities!  Not only is it great for polishing metals, it restores finish to bakelite and other plastics!  You can simply polish the piece, and check the soft cloth.  If it has the yellow, it is bakelite!  Be careful of the "dirt" false-positive, that is also familiar to the 409 test.  If it's not bakelite, you still have improved the appearance and possibly value of the piece!

 

 

 

Summary

I hope that this guide has showed you some examples of the different types of jewelry plastics, as well as the history behind them.  Most importantly, however, I hope you have gathered valuable information on how to check if your pieces are bakelite.

 

GLOSSARY OF TERMS

Acrylic:  Thermoset plastic material that does not shatter.  Also known as lucite or plexiglass.

Amber:  The petrified sap from a prehistoric tree.  May have insects or plant materials in it.  Can range from clear, to pale green, to dark orange. 

Bakelite:  Phenol Formaldehyde Resin invented by Leo H Baekeland in 1909.  Does not melt once cast.

Camphor:  A white transparent waxy crystalline solid with a strong penetrating pungent odor.  Can be used for medicinal purposes as well as embalming.  Some foreign countries use small amounts for candy flavoring, but in large quantities, ingesting camphor can be poisonous and fatal.

Celluloid:   The name of a class of compounds created from nitrocellulose and camphor, plus dyes and other agents.  Celluloid is generally regarded to be the first thermoplastic.  It is easily molded and shaped, there are suggestions that celluloid was first made as an ivory replacement. Celluloid is highly flammable and also easily decomposes, and is no longer widely used.

Collodion:  A solution of nitrocellulose in ether or acetone, sometimes with the addition of alcohols.  Its generic name is pyroxylin solution.  It is toxic and highly flammable.  As this solvent evaporates, it dries to a celluloid-like film.

Coral:  A stationary living organism found in bodies of water.

Effervescent:  Bubbles that occur due to a reaction or absorbing of liquids.

Formaldehyde:  Methanol.  Formaldehyde is actually a gas, but is highly soluable in water.  It is used to kill bacterial, preserve biological specimens, preserve vaccinations, and treat warts.  It is most often used in the production of polymers and other chemicals.

Galalith:  French Bakelite.  Made of milk proteins.  Does not test like Bakelite.

Ivory:  The tusk or bone of an animal.

Lucite:  Dupont's registered name for methyl methacrylate polymer, a thermoset plastic also referred to as acrylic or plexiglass.  Does not melt after molded. 

Nitrocellulose:  Also known as Cellulose Nitrate.  A highly flammable compound formed by nitrating cellulose through exposure to nitric acid or powerful nitrating agent.  Also known as gun cotton. 

Phenol:  Also known as carbolic acid.  It is a colorless crystalline solid with a typical sweet tarry odor.

Plexiglass:  Rohm & Haas Chemical Company's registered name for methyl methacrylate, a thermoset plastic also referred to as acrylic or lucite.  Does not melt after molded.  Does not shatter. 

Polymer:  A generic term used to describe a very long molecule consisting of structural and repeating units connected by covalent chemical bonds.

Residue:  A solid substance that remains after evaporating liquid(s).

Solvent:  A liquid that dissolves a solid, liquid or gas, resulting in a solution.

Thermoset Plastic:  A thermoplastic that can not be remolded or melted after molded and cast.

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