If you're like me, you've probably accumulated tons of plastic jewelry over the years from flea markets, yard sales, estate sales, etc. Most of it is just colorful junk, but some of the pieces could be Bakelite or one of the other vintage phenolic resins such as Catalin. (Since many dealers and collectors refer to all phenolic resins as Bakelite, I will do so here.) And though there are many lovely pieces made of other plastics such as Lucite or Celluloid, the serious end of the collectibles market is almost entirely concerned with Bakelite. So, how does one differentiate between a desirable Bakelite bracelet and a common plastic copy?
Experienced collectors can generally identify Bakelite by smell. In fact, the most common test is to run a piece under very hot running water, or place it in a steaming pot, for about 30 seconds. If it's Bakelite, you'll notice an acrid smell, which has been variously described as similar to fresh shellac, "burning wire insulation", or nail polish remover. In his book, Bakelite Jewelry, A Collector's Guide http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0785802762/auctionbytescom, Tony Grosso recommends rubbing your thumb very hard and rapidly over a piece until your thumb becomes hot, then quickly sniff it. The characteristic phenol odor will last only a second or two, but just long enough to determine whether the piece is genuine or not.
It is necessary at this point to mention another classic test, the hot pin test, if only to warn collectors NOT to use it. In the first place, no one is going to let a potential buyer stick a hot pin in a piece of jewelry. (It doesn't do anything to Bakelite but leave a small purple or burgundy dot that permanently mars the finish.) In the second place, if the piece you're testing turns out to be old Celluloid (cellulose nitrate), it could very well explode and burn or fly into your eye!
Through experience, a collector can also identify Bakelite by its weight (it's generally heavier than comparably-sized pieces of Lucite or some other plastic), its lack of mold lines, and its rich color, which generally shows signs of oxidation. This last is important if you come across a piece that is white, since there is no white Bakelite unless the piece has been refinished within the last 30 days. Bakelite oxidizes rapidly, with whites becoming yellow or mustard, some cobalts turning to greens, and aquas to browns, etc.
Karima Parry, another well-known expert of Bakelite jewelry and author of several books on the subject, has come up with another simple test that, in conjunction with the hot water test, will almost guarantee identification. She recommends using a cotton swab dipped in Formula 409 to swipe an inconspicuous section of the piece. If it is Bakelite, there will be a yellowish stain on the Q-tip no matter what the actual color of the piece. (Don't forget to wash the piece in warm soapy water and towel dry it even though the 409 will not strip the finish.)
For a complete description of the test, I heartily recommend visiting Ms. Parry's Web site, Plastic Fantastic http://www.plasticfantastic.com. It's a terrific resource for the collector with pages devoted to identification, terminology, testing, Shultz Bakelite, etc. (Ron and Ester Shultz are contemporary artisans who create one-of-a-kind signed pieces out of recycled Bakelite. There is an entire subgroup of collectors who specialize in Shulz Bakelite, usually recognized by its uncharacteristically high luster.)
Of course, if you're a novice collector, the best education is hands-on. Most reputable dealers are usually happy to expound upon the fine points of collecting Bakelite, and many will demonstrate the techniques for correct identification.