Understanding the Differences Between Bakelite and Catalin

Understanding the Differences Between Bakelite and Catalin

One of the great misnomers in vintage and antique jewellery sales is ‘Bakelite’. Nearly all jewellery that we refer to as Bakelite jewellery is actually Catalin, a similar but different type of early plastic. This can be confusing but is more easily be understood if you think of the term ‘Bakelite’, when it refers to jewellery, as simply being another term for ‘Catalin’. (When I sell Catalin jewellery, I call it ‘Bakelite’ because otherwise the customer may not know what it is.)

Bakelite

Bakelite was a type of early plastic first developed in 1907 by the Belgian-American chemist Leo Baekeland in Yonkers, New York. It was used in a wide variety of products, ranging from radios to household appliances and industrial parts but was rarely used for jewellery.  It was produced into the 1950s.

Catalin

Catalin was developed and trademarked in 1927 by the American Catalin Corporation when they acquired the patents for Bakelite.  Catalin contains no fillers and is transparent and almost colourless. It can be carved and faceted. It has a wide variety of applications, including jewellery.

The Catalin Corporation introduced 15 colours, including clear, opaque and marbled versions. Catalin jewellery was produced from 1927 until the end of World War II. Production ended because every piece had to be cast and polished by hand which proved to be too expensive.

Final words

Made only between the years of 1927 until approximately 1945, Catalin / Bakelite jewellery is very much associated with the Art Deco era. Iconic and characterful, it is surprisingly pleasant to wear and has a truly addictive quality. It has unexpected nuance and charm. Two pieces striking each other – for example, when two bangles are worn – make a delicious ‘clunking’ sound. The colours and styles are vast and gorgeous. Often the styles are completely one of a kind, especially when hand-carved. For all of these reasons and more, it is no wonder that Catalin / Bakelite jewellery is becoming increasingly sought after and is considered a collector’s item.

The tests for Bakelite and Catalin are the same.

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Bakelite (Catalin) bangle. Elder and Bloom.

 

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Bakelite / Catalin bangle. Elder and Bloom.

© Pippa Gaubert Bear and Elder and Bloom LLC, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Pippa Bear and Elder and Bloom with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Sources / further reading:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catalin

http://plastiquarian.com/?page_id=14230

 

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Tutti Frutti

Tutti Frutti is a style of Art Deco jewelry popularized by Cartier in the 1920s.  Inspired by the colorful and sumptuous jewelry of India, Carter returned from a trip to that country to design the new ‘Tutti Frutti’ style jewelry.  Tutti Frutti jewelry was characterized by a multitude of colorful gemstones such as ruby, emerald and sapphire, usually set in platinum with a surround of diamonds.  The colored gemstones were carved or cabochon. Other designers and costume jewelry manufacturers replicated and were influenced by the popular style. Genuine signed Cartier pieces are of course very valuable.

AN ART DECO 'TUTTI FRUTTI' BROOCH, BY CARTIER

AN ART DECO ‘TUTTI FRUTTI’ BROOCH, BY CARTIER
Christie’s 5968

A VERY FINE ART DECO MULTI-GEM 'TUTTI-FRUTTI' BRACELET, BY CARTIER

A VERY FINE ART DECO MULTI-GEM ‘TUTTI-FRUTTI’ BRACELET, BY CARTIER
Christie’s 1374

AN ART DECO 'TUTTI FRUTTI' MULTI-GEM, BLACK ENAMEL AND DIAMOND BROOCH, BY CARTIER

AN ART DECO ‘TUTTI FRUTTI’ MULTI-GEM, BLACK ENAMEL AND DIAMOND BROOCH, BY CARTIER
Christie’s Sale 1371

 

AN ART DECO DIAMOND, RUBY, SAPPHIRE AND EMERALD TUTTI FRUTTI DRESS CLIP, BY CARTIER

AN ART DECO DIAMOND, RUBY, SAPPHIRE AND EMERALD TUTTI FRUTTI DRESS CLIP, BY CARTIER
Christie’s Sale 2061

 

 

 

Marcasite Jewelry

Marcasite brooch made from pyrite and silver

Marcasite jewelry is actually made from iron pyrite or ‘fool’s gold’.  There is a gem stone called marcasite which is normally considered unsuitable for jewelry making so this can result in some confusion when discussing marcasite jewelry.  For the purposes of this posting, when I say ‘marcasite’, I mean marcasite jewelry made with iron pyrite (you can assume this is the case just about everywhere that you see ‘marcasite’ referred to).

File:2780M-pyrite1.jpg

Iron pyrite, used for making marcasite jewelry

Marcasite jewelry is nearly always made with silver settings. Marcasite jewelery was worn as early as 1700 or even before, but gained popularity particularly during the mid-Victorian era as it was appropriate for mourning wear.  It continued to be worn throughout the Art Deco period as a less expensive alternative to diamonds.   Even into the 1980s, it was considered appropriate jewelry for young women as it gave some glitter and glamor at a low cost.

Vintage Marcasite Earrings

Theodor Fahrner Art Deco Pendant Silver Marcasite Chalcedony
(previously sold by Tadema Gallery Ref 6219)

File:Marcasite silver bracelet.jpg

Marcasite Silver Bracelet

Things to consider when looking out for old marcasite jewelry are:

1) Is it hallmarked? If it is a quality piece it should have a silver stamp of some kind. If it is not stamped as silver, the chances are it is not a quality piece.

2) Many pieces were made in Germany before the Second World War for export.  If it is marked GERMANY, it might well be prewar.

3) Marcasite jewelry is either set with prong or bead settings (just like gemstones) or glued pieces of pyrite.  The properly set pieces are far superior to the glued. Setting the tiny pieces of pyrite by hand would have been a time consuming labor and gave much more durability.  In order to tell if the pieces are set or glued, examine closely with a jeweler’s loupe.  If you see any little overlapping claws or edges from the silver, it is set (unless the piece is cast and has just been made to appear as though it is set and is still actually glued, investigate thoroughly to check if the pieces are actually held in place by the overlaps or not).

4) Pyrite for marcasite jewelry is usually cut in tiny pieces with a flat bottom, similar to a Dutch Rose Cut. Cut steel can also resemble marcasite jewelry and unfortunately most contemporary ‘marcasite’ jewelry is actually just cut steel or is glued in pieces of pyrite. To tell the difference between cut steel and pyrite, look at the back. Cut steel pieces will be attached with rivets on the back of the piece.

Scallop Shaped Cut-Steel Brooch.
© The Trustees of the British Museum.

Scallop Shaped Cut-Steel Brooch: Reverse. Note the Pattern of Rivets Securing the Studs.
© The Trustees of the British Museum.

Other things to consider are:

Are there any missing pieces of pyrite in the piece? If so, this can lower the value. Also, remember that just because it is old it doesn’t mean it is high quality.  Many Victorian pieces were glued and also made with cut steel. However, if the pieces are set properly and not glued, the chances are it is quite old (although not necessarily of course).

Today, old marcasite jewelry is considered collectible and is also very easy to wear and enjoy with contemporary looks.  I expect marquisite jewelry will always be popular.

Sources / further reading:

http://www.langantiques.com/university/index.php/Cut-Steel_Jewelry

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marcasite_jewellery

http://www.queensofvintage.com/victorian-marcasite-jewellery/

http://www.langantiques.com/university/index.php/Marcasite