Discovered in 1907 by Leo Baekeland, Bakelite is a highly collectable vintage plastic used prolifically during the 1930s and 1940s. Domestic items such as pot handles, buttons and radios were made from Bakelite. Bakelite was a popular and economical jewellery material. Bakelite jewellery collectors only want genuine Bakelite. Fakealite, lucite and thermoset plastics are often confused with Bakelite. Although there are several ways to test for Bakelite such as the hot pin prick, the safest and most definitive method is the simichrome polish test.
Purchase simichrome polish from your local hardware store and read the directions and warnings on the back. Always read the labels of cleaners to avoid accidental staining.
Open the simichrome polish tube or tub and put the lid to one side. Put newspaper on the work surface to prevent staining and deal with spillage.
Place a small amount of the simichrome polish on a clean dry cloth. The type of cloth doesn't matter but a white, cotton rag is best.
Rub an area of the plastic item with the polish-laden rag. Choose a spot that will not spoil the decorative look of the piece if the cleaner leaves a stain. The inside of a bracelet or the back of a radio is a good way to test discreetly.
Look at the cloth to check for any staining. If there is a yellowish-brown mark, the piece is most probably Bakelite. It does not matter what colour the plastic item is, the Bakelite stain will be yellowish-brown. If there is no stain, the piece is more than likely lucite or modern plastic.
Wash the polish off the item to remove residue. If using warm water on Bakelite there may be an odour of formaldehyde when rinsing. This is normal and expected.
If the Bakelite is dirty, coated with a varnish or otherwise tainted, the simichrome may produce a false negative.
With any speciality polish or cleaner there is a chance of allergic reaction; you may choose to wear gloves to avoid direct contact with the cleaner.
Tips and warnings
- If the Bakelite is dirty, coated with a varnish or otherwise tainted, the simichrome may produce a false negative.
- With any speciality polish or cleaner there is a chance of allergic reaction; you may choose to wear gloves to avoid direct contact with the cleaner.