With simple design, color, and texture, this bracelet that jewelry appraiser Gloria Lieberman inspected in Louisville in 1998 shows a tasteful example of modern plastic jewelry. The type of plastic determines the monetary value of a piece like this. Based on the weight and feel, the guest believed the piece to be made of Bakelite, a sought-after early form of plastic.
Not All Plastic is Created Equal
Made of a combination of phenol and formaldehyde, Bakelite is a type of plastic that became popular during the 1930s and 40s as a material not only for jewelry, but for other consumer goods like hairbrushes and radios, too. Lieberman explains that valuable examples of Bakelite tend to be the rarer forms. According to her, these rare forms tend to have multiple colors, distinct carving, and laminates — a style where the color is woven together. This particular bracelet did turn out to be real Bakelite, with a 1998 retail value of $300 to $500.
Taking a Dip
Testing your plastic jewelry can involve a few different senses, including sight, smell, and feel. In this case, Lieberman uses a very minimal test to see if this particular bracelet is composed of that combination of phenol and formaldehyde. Fill a glass with hot tap water and dip part of the plastic in. Odorless? Then it's probably not Bakelite. As Lieberman demonstrates, true Bakelite ought to come out of the water with an "acrid" smell. Sometimes, beauty can have a less appealing side.
More Than Meets the Eye
Let's say your object isn't a stylish bangle or cuff, but instead a larger plastic object such as a hairbrush or radio. In this case, it would be much easier to use a dab of Simichrome cream to check the material makeup. According to MARKET WARRIORS expert Miller Gaffney, a small dab of Simichrome will tell the truth. "It turns from pink to yellow when applied to real Bakelite — except Simichrome will not work on black or lacquered Bakelite."
A Quick Touch-Up
Simichrome cream is widely available; you can apply it to the object with a soft cloth. Although it shouldn't affect the surface texture and color of your object and is a non-abrasive product, be sure to apply the Simichrome dab on a less prominent part of the piece and clean the surface after application. For more of Miller Gaffney's tips on testing the authenticity of your favorite jewels and gems, see her "Tools of the Trade" blog post.