Bakelite®, an amber-colored plastic material, is the trademarked name for the phenol-formaldehyde resin invented by Belgian-American chemist Leo Hendrik Baekeland. It is known as one of the first synthetic plastics, derived from methanol and coal tar. Once having a wide variety of uses, today it is used primarily for things such as vintage and collectible jewelry, billiard balls, board game pieces, and firearm magazines.
In 1907, Baekeland was seeking a more durable replacement for shellac and hard rubber. Experimenting with various pressure and temperature settings, he discovered a moldable plastic that became very hard when cooled and dried. Baekeland announced his findings of the new chemical oxynenzyl-methylenglycolanhydride, or Bakelite®, at the American Chemical Society in 1909. The New York Times hailed the new material as an economical replacement for celluloid and hard rubber. The plastic is fire resistant and proved valuable for use in components such as radio housing, machine gun parts, car brake cylinders, electrical receptacles, and electric iron parts.
Bakelite® was widely used in the 1920s and 1930s in the United States and Great Britain. Manufacturers made many different products from the hefty, durable plastic. It was crafted into rotary-dial telephones, radios, electric guitars, appliance parts, door knobs, bangles, and more. The plastic was even under consideration by the United States Mint as a replacement for copper in making pennies.
The use of this material declined after World War II, when lighter and more colorful plastics were developed. Today, Bakelite® products are considered valuable antiques and remnants of an optimistic era of burgeoning scientific advances and developments. Jewelry designers often recycle it from antique radios or appliance part castoffs into new jewelry pieces, creating something new from the old. It is also the unsung and unseen hero of hip-joint replacement parts, pacemakers, and cataract lenses.
In 1988, authors of The Bakelite® Jewelry Book exposed a counterfeit product named "fakelite." The authors expressed concern that fakelite would devalue the vintage jewelry market. Antique collectors can perform a certain metal polish test to detect fakelite from Bakelite®; when wiped with polish, the real plastic will rub off, leaving a yellowish stain on the cloth. Fakelite also produces a pungent petroleum odor when rubbed or warmed, but Bakelite® emits a distinctly formaldehyde odor.