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Paint's Swirls, Scarcity Spur Eye-Catching Jewelry

Friday, May 5, 2017

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A bygone method of painting cars in automotive factories has given rise to a market for collectors scrambling to acquire color-swirled chunks that are, for some, akin to gems.

Known as “fordite,” “motor (or Detroit) agate,” “paint rock,” or “enamel slag,” the layered paint that dripped off cars during the production process from the 1930s to the 1960s has become highly sought by jewelry makers.

As recently reported by Atlas Obscura, fordite continues to generate interest, partly because of its scarcity: Much of it was buried in landfills decades ago.

1Veertje CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Fordite, which is layered paint that dripped off cars from the 1930s to the 1960s during hand spray painting in automotive factories, is highly sought by jewelry makers.

“It’s a fun and interesting piece of history, a slice of Americana,” Illinois jewelry maker Cindy Dempsey told The New York Times. “I’ve had people look at a piece and say, ‘That looks like a piece of the Ford Fairlane I used to have.' ”

Dempsey said she has suppliers for fordite, which she admits she also hoards because of the dearth of the material.

“People call from all over to talk about where the plants were and where the landfills were and where all the waste material would have been. They just lament the fact they can’t get in there,” she said.

Fordite Origins

Layered automotive paint slag—or rough—was formed by the outmoded method of spray painting cars by hand in cavernous factories, mostly in Detroit, Michigan. Paint dripping from automobiles would adhere to tracks that the car frames rested upon.

Hardened by repeated exposure to paint-curing ovens, the thick layers of enamel would be hacked off the rails by workers. Some recognized its psychedelic beauty, and a market for it sprung up among jewelry designers, who ground down and polished the dried hunks of paint to reveal even more dazzling colors.

“The thought that these beautiful chunks of paint rock came from an auto factory, and not from the earth, opened a whole new line of thought for me and my art,” Dempsey told “These chunks didn't look like much, but when you cut through them, they sure looked organic, with those familiar stripes and concentric rings, just like real agates ... but the colors! Wow!"

Bygone Era

Since the 1980s, cars have been painted via an electrostatic process—enamel is magnetized to the frames—so there is no paint overspray and, therefore, no more fordite.

That hasn’t stopped some unscrupulous purveyors, who aren’t above whipping up some fake fordite. Antiquated colors used for older cars, like pastel yellow or sea-foam green, can be somewhat duplicated, but the history of genuine motor agate can’t.

There’s a healthy market for fordite on online auction sites. A 291-gram piece of motor agate, which is roughly two-thirds of a pound, sold on eBay in March for $333.

Health Concerns

Paint rock does have one drawback: It’s mostly made of lead-based paint. The lead in the paint fordite consists of is not easily absorbed through the skin, so unless you eat a chunk of it, there’s little health risk.

“If there were any danger, it would be in the cutting process rather than after the stone is finished,” said Gary Wilson, a lapidary, or gemstone artisan, who works with fordite.

“The material is cut and polished wet, so there’s no dust to breathe,” he adds, but notes he still wears a mask when working with the dried paint.


Tagged categories: Automotive coatings; Factory application methods; Paint application; Spray Paint

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