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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A Quick and Easy Test for Bakelite / Catalin

bakelitebracelets

Testing for Bakelite / Catalin is remarkably easy.  To put it quite simply: all you have to do is get some silver polish containing simichrome and rub it on the piece using a paper towel.  If the paper towel shows a yellow color, it is Bakelite / Catalin.  If it doesn’t, it is not.  (There are some exceptions to this, such as black Bakelite or Catalin, which may not show positive results).

What I like about this test is I don’t have to try and identify the subtle differences in smells when the piece is run under hot water.  I don’t know about you, but I find those kinds of test very difficult.  I think I have a decent sense of smell, but the moment I over-think it I can’t tell the subtle differences in smells of different plastics – I am a human, after all, not a sniffer dog!

It’s worthwhile knowing this simple simichrome test as Bakelite / Catalin is becoming increasingly sought after and rare and has considerably more value than other plastics, whether it’s used in jewelry or other objects. It can also be remarkably lovely.