Catalin will usually give off a distinct smell of carbolic acid when wet or warmed Friction with your thumb on the dry item for 30 seconds or so can release the distinctive odour.....
There are many different testing methods used to test for catalin. These include: the hot water test, the friction test. None are absolutely conclusive of their own. Once you have some experience with the product, you will get a very good feel for it by just sight. Catalin have a very distinctive look to them.
This material is not considered true by the vintage jewellery collectors. There is a great deal of French Catalin for sale on auction sites such as ebay. The pieces are lovely, with highly curved designs and vibrant colors. They sometimes fetch high prices.
However, the type of jewellery is neither Catalin nor is it it vintage. It is mass produced, newly manufactured plastic fashion jewellery with little or no collector value. The same is true of the mass produced items labeled as Catalin from the far east. If there is a lot of it for sale, you can be sure that it isn't true Catalin, which is very hard to come by. I buy estate jewellery collections all the time, and rarely find genuine Catalin pieces in the estates. Also, French Catalin will not pass the Catalin tests outlined on this page.
During the time period that Catalin prices have risen, this "Fakelite" has appeared on the market. Although some of the sellers of Fakelite insist that it will pass chemical testing, none of it successfully passes water testing. Fakelite smells "wrong" (unlike Catalin) when tested with hot water.
This test is very accurate, but requires some experience, since one needs to know what formaldehyde actually smells like. Run the water in your tap (or heat it in the microwave oven) until it is very hot and then hold the jewellery piece in it for 15-30 seconds. Immediately smell the article. It is bakelite or catalin it will have the distinctive smell of formaldehyde. A burnt milk smell indicates that the piece is French Bakelite, and a camphor smell indicates that it is Celluloid - another early vintage plastic.
Much of the reworked catalin pieces will not respond to the Simichrome polish or 409 tests, but should respond to the hot water test. It is still possibe to get a false positive to this test, if the piece is newly polished, carved or highly dirty. Also, be very careful of the water on the findings, since the water can loosen glue. Always dry thoroughly after testing.
I strongly discourage this method of testing, since it required that you actually damage the piece of jewellery which will devalue it. The test requires heating a pin tip until it is red and then touching it to the Catalin jewellery piece. The characteristics of true Catalin insure that the piece will not melt, so a pin cannot pierce it. The heat of the pin will, however, cause a dark spot to remain on the jewellery piece, which cannot later be removed.
You will never find seams or mold lines on genuine Catalin jewellery. White jewellery is a good giveaway that is not Catalin, since both have a yellowish patina which develops over time. A chalky finish which looks like dust and will not wash away is never found on the true product. (This is a good indicator that it is a newer material referred to as "Fakelite".) Finally, true Catalin pieces will have a distinctive clunking sound when tapped together.
As indicated above, no one test is completely conclusive for guaranteeing that your jewellery piece is true Catalin. When a test is used in combination with all of the other..........