Bakelite® is a synthetic plastic invented by Leo Hendrik Baekeland in 1907 as a replacement for shellac and hard rubber. It was widely used in the 1920s and 1930s for various products, but declined after World War II. Today, it is mostly used for vintage and collectible jewelry, pool balls, board game pieces, and firearm magazines. It is also used in hip joint replacement parts, pacemakers, and cataract lenses. Fakelite, a counterfeit product, devalues the vintage jewelry market, and can be detected through a metal polish test and distinctive odor.
Bakelite®, an amber colored plastic material, is the commercial name of the phenol-formaldehyde resin invented by the Belgian-American chemist Leo Hendrik Baekeland. It is known as one of the first synthetic plastics, derived from methanol and coal tar. It once had a wide variety of uses, today it’s mostly used for things like vintage and collectible jewelry, pool balls, board game pieces, and firearm magazines.
In 1907, Baekeland was looking for a more durable replacement for shellac and hard rubber. By experimenting with various pressure and temperature settings, he discovered a moldable plastic that became very hard when cooled and dried. Baekeland announced his findings on the new chemical oxynenzil-methylenglycolanhydride, or Bakelite®, to the American Chemical Society in 1909. The New York Times hailed the new material as an inexpensive replacement for celluloid and hard rubber. The plastic is resistant to fire and has proved invaluable for use in components such as radio housings, machine gun parts, car brake cylinders, electrical sockets, and electrical iron parts.
Bakelite® was used extensively in the 1920s and 1930s in the United States and Great Britain. Manufacturers have made many different products from heavy and durable plastic. It has been made into rotary phones, radios, electric guitars, appliance parts, doorknobs, bracelets, and more. Plastic has also been considered by the United States Mint as a substitute for copper in the production of cents.
The use of this material declined after World War II when lighter, more colorful plastics were developed. Today, Bakelite® products are regarded as treasured antiques and remnants of an optimistic era of burgeoning scientific advances and developments. Jewelry designers often recycle it from antique radios or appliance spare parts into new pieces of jewelry, creating something new out of the old. He’s also the unsung and invisible hero of hip joint replacement parts, pacemakers and cataract lenses.
In 1988, the authors of The Bakelite® Jewelry Book exposed a counterfeit product called “fakelite”. The authors expressed concern that fakelite would devalue the vintage jewelry market. Antique collectors can do a certain metal polish test to detect fakelite from Bakelite®; when cleaned with polish, real plastic will rub off, leaving a yellowish stain on the cloth. Fakelite also produces a pungent petroleum odor when rubbed or heated, but Bakelite® emits a distinctly formaldehyde odor.