Bakelite is another name for phenolic resin, an early form of plastic. Today, objects made from Bakelite are considered highly collectible, although in its glory days of the 1930s and 1940s, it was seen as an inexpensive alternative to high-end jewelry materials such as jade and pearl.
A Belgian-born chemist named Leo Baekeland used his profits from the sale of Velox, a film treatment used by newspapers, to set up an independent lab in Yonkers, New York around the year 1901. Dr. Baekeland spent several years working on a durable coating for the lanes of bowling alleys, similar to today's protective polyurethane floor sealants. He combined carbolic acid and formaldehyde to form phenolic resin. This resin would remain pourable long enough to apply to hardwood flooring, but then become insoluble and impermeable after curing. Dr. Baekeland patented this early form of plastic and started his own Bakelite corporation around 1910 to market it to heavy industry and automobile manufacturers. Bakelite could be used for electric insulators or as an insulating coating for automotive wiring.
After a decade of primarily industrial applications, Bakelite soon entered the consumer market. Thomas Edison used it as the base for his early commercial phonograph records. It was also used to form billiard balls and as decorative handles for flatware and hand-held mirrors. Bakelite could be melted and poured into lead molds to form the shape of drinking glasses, flower vases, musical instruments and other consumer goods. It replaced an earlier, more flammable form of plastic called celluloid.
Bakelite products were not often mass-produced through an injection mold process. Craftsmen who wanted to create jewelry or other decorative items from would order it in the form of cylinders or blocks. Powered hand tools and grinders would allow artisans to carve out individual pieces for resale. Bakelite jewelry became the rage among fashionable consumers, but its relatively low cost also made it popular among the general public during the Depression. In 1927, the original patent expired and the rights to the process were bought by a company called Catalin. Manufacturers learned how to add a full palette of colors to the resin and Bakelite-Catalin continued to be popular until the late 1940s.
Ultimately, Bakelite-Catalin's labor-intensive process proved to be its undoing. After World War II, mass production became the plastic industry's buzzword and this early form became a pleasant memory. Collectors today prize it for its patina and its versatility. Unscrupulous dealers, however, have tried to sell other plastic items as authentic Bakelite. One test for authenticity is called the hot pin test. Interested buyers should find an inconspicuous area of the object in question and apply a heated pin. True Bakelite gives off a distinctive odor as it melts, very similar to the scent of burnt human hair. If the pin melts the object but no formaldehyde/burnt hair odor is detected, it is most likely an imitation.