Bakelite is a plastic, invented by Leo Baekeland in 1907 and popular in the early 1900's, since it was one of the first of its kind, cheap and easily available. It wasn't actually a very popular material for Mahjong sets in the first craze of 1920's but became more popular later.
Bakelite isn't the only plastic used for Mahjong sets. Catalin is another popular material, developed from bakelite. The two are pretty much the same, the major difference being that bakelite was made by a US company while Catalin was from UK. Both trade names actually cover few related plastics, made from slightly different chemicals.
What makes bakelite Mahjong sets so popular these days amongst the collectors? Colour is definitely one part of it. The bakelite sets have this beautiful warm butterscotch colour, which looks both nice and old.
French Ivory is another old material. It's celluloid, which is one of the very first plastics, invented by John Hyatt in the 1860's. It's called French Ivory because it has a grain that looks kind of like ivory. Celluloid was expensive, so it's unlikely that many Mahjong sets were made of celluloid.
The tricky thing about these plastics is that most people who deal with these sets cannot really tell them apart. So, if someone claims a set they are selling is this or that plastic, the only thing you can be sure of is that it's plastic. Of course, for most buyers it doesn't really matter.
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