If you are into mid-century costume jewelry styles, you probably own a number of Bakelite jewelry.
This jewelry style formed an important part of the Art Deco period; the pieces are now valuable antiques worth a good sum.
If you have good quality options in your collection, that is even more impressive because Bakelite jewelry is quite valuable and beautiful. There is one caveat, though, Bakelite jewelry is quite fragile, and it is not shatterproof.
If the jewelry falls on a hard surface, it will shatter quite easily, so you have to be extra careful when cleaning and taking care of the jewelry.
But don’t worry about that, it is a bit of a challenge, but it is possible to clean the Bakelite jewelry seamlessly without the jewelry breaking apart.
Below, we’ll share some tips on how to do it properly. But first, is that piece of jewelry made of Bakelite?
Identify and Clean the Bakelite Plastic Pieces early on
Ideally, you can identify Bakelite jewelry using the hot water test. If the jewelry is made of actual Bakelite, it will release a specific smell when you hold it close to hot water.
Authentic Bakelite jewelry is made of phenols and formaldehyde. So, exposure to hot water will leave you with this smell – this is the same kind of smell that hits you when you walk into biological labs with preserved animal specimens.
On the other hand, if the jewelry smells like camphor or burnt milk, then that plastic isn’t made of Bakelite.
If the plastic has no smell, it’s probably made of Lucite, although it may also be made of plastic protectant made of paint or some finish.
If it smells like rotten milk, then the material is probably French Bakelite or Galalith. The jewelry is made of celluloid plastic if it smells like camphor with that old-fashioned mothball or pungent evergreen odor.
If the plastic material has no smell at all, then it’s a Fakelite or an imitation product.
You also need to consider the fact that Bakelite is quite durable, but it will develop a hazy or dull finish upon exposure to the elements.
This is all part of a natural process, but you can restore its shine.
When testing Bakelite, it is possible that the hot water trick will not work too well for you, or the results may be inconclusive.
In such cases, it may be wise to use different test products like Simichrome or Formula 409.
But just use a very small amount of either product because they are quite harsh and can be damaging to Bakelite, despite being accurate.
Other than using a very small amount of the product, you also need to wash it off thoroughly immediately after the test and then dry it completely. Use mild soap and water to wash it.
The other precautionary measure to take into consideration is the fact that the black Bakelite items may not be as responsive if you use this test.
Now that we have this out of the way let’s take a look at the best ways of cleaning and restoring the shine of your Bakelite jewelry.
How to clean Bakelite jewelry
1. Polishing and restoring the bright finish of the Bakelite jewelry
Despite proper care, attention, and maintenance, your Bakelite jewelry will be dull out, especially from the overzealous testing and rubbing you will expose it to. Age and use will also make the bangle dull.
However, this is not permanent damage, and you can still restore the original bright sheen of the Bakelite jewelry right at home.
How? Well, below are some of the simple solutions for cleaning and polishing.
You could clean or polish your Bakelite jewelry using either a Simichrome polish or the Maas Metal polish. These cleaning products are in the form of small tubes, just like toothpaste cream.
You can find these polishing products in the nearest hardware store. They work great and will restore the original shine to Bakelite jewelry.
To use this polishing cream, you need to squeeze just a pea-sized amount of polishing cream on the clean, soft rag and then gently rub the cloth on the jewelry.
You could also add just a tiny bit of elbow grease before finally polishing the jewelry using a clean piece of cotton cloth.
You may have to polish it severally, but the dullness will disappear, as will the light scratches on the Bakelite jewelry.
In addition to being the perfect product for cleaning and polishing the jewelry, these polishes also work great in identifying the Bakelite jewelry.
If the piece is fake, the small polish will come off alongside a yellow stain on the Bakelite jewelry, which often happens when the Bakelite is coated as is with the black Bakelite.
2. Clean the Bakelite using a soft-bristled toothbrush
Naturally, Bakelite pieces will accumulate dirt and dust, which is less shiny, but you can rub them and clean it properly using a simple toothbrush. To clean, first, rub your Bakelite jewelry with a dry-cleaning cloth.
And in case of dirt etched in the grooves and cracks of the jewelry, you may want to use a soft-bristled toothbrush to clean it out well.
Once you use the toothbrush, the next step would be to clean the piece of jewelry. To clean the Bakelite jewelry well, the first thing you need to do is to invest in the right cleaning products.
For starters, you will need a mildly abrasive cleaner that works very well to get rid of the plastic that has deteriorated, just on the surface. Avoid harsh cleaners because that would damage the Bakelite jewelry beyond repair.
We recommend using specialized Bakelite cleaners rather than general-purpose cleaners. Like the polishing tip, put some of the polishing cleaners on the clean cloth, then rub it on the Bakelite jewelry to get rid of the dirt, dust, and scratches.
Note, however, that when using a product like NOVUS, you may want to leave behind a very thin layer of the cleaner and let it dry until you have a remnant hazy or cloudy film.
Once you’re done cleaning it, you should dry the jewelry using a piece of dry and clean cloth to buff and polish the material—Buff the Bakelite jewelry in firm, circular motions to eliminate all excess cleaning products. Repeat the processes above if the jewelry is not 100% to your standard.
Follow the cleaning safety instructions
Depending on the cleaning products used, you should always follow the recommended safety instructions given, such as using gloves and cleaning the jewelry somewhere with great ventilation. Always read the labels for more details.
When cleaning the Bakelite jewelry, you should be careful not to apply too much pressure on the piece, especially for Bakelite pieces with cracks and scratches.
And for the Catalin pieces, including the Bakelite jewelry pieces, especially the bright-colored options without any filler materials, you will be relieved to know that you can scrub them with a little more vigor.
Treatment for Bakelite Jewelry
Bakelite or Catalin jewelry can be cleaned and polished in the same way, but it’s worth noting that while Catalin doesn’t have any pulpy fillers that are used during Bakelite’s production, this type of plastic will withstand the use of slightly abrasive cleaning treatments like sanding or even metal polishes.
But just before you use stronger polishes, you should follow the guidelines offered by Catalin for cleaning their products.
Bakelite might not be shatterproof, but it is durable and lasts longer when you take care of it.
And so, thanks to the tips shared above, you will be able to keep your Bakelite jewelry in perfect condition and make it shine and look elegant at all times, even if you are just a collector who wants to keep their pieces in perfect condition.
Stephanie is a jewelry lover when she was a teenager. Her major was fashion design when she was in college. She is a jewelry designer at SOQ Jewelry and other design companies. Now she is also a writer for our website. She writes a lot of designs&brands posts with very actionable tips.