Home » Jewelry Made Of Leftover Paint From Old Car Factories Is Fascinating And Beautiful. Check Out My New Gift

Jewelry Made Of Leftover Paint From Old Car Factories Is Fascinating And Beautiful. Check Out My New Gift

Creator: Gd Jpeg V1.0 (using Ijg Jpeg V80), Quality = 82

On Wednesday, my wife gave a present that was small, yet mind blowing. Out of a little baggie came a pendant, and its colors dazzled me. But what’s up with it? Sheryl loves giving me gifts with some sort of significance, and this just appeared to be a groovy necklace. This is actually a piece of “Fordite,” also known as “Detroit Agate.” It’s several layers of several decades-old car paint hardened into something almost rock-like, and it’s pretty amazing.

Somehow, I made it 30 laps around the sun. There was once a time when I couldn’t fathom completing my 20s, let alone making it to 30. But some wonderful events in life corrected my course. I have a lot to thank for that, including finding my own way to writing about the silly adventures that I subject myself to. Those adventures all helped me become the person I am today, and turning 30 Wednesday marked a personal milestone. Now I’m ready for the next 30 years and beyond! My darling wife, Sheryl, showered me with unique gifts for the occasion. She sourced a recreation of a Master Systems Display from the USS Voyager from Star Trek: Voyager. I also got a set piece from Star Trek: Picard and some other goodies. Then came this little gem.

[Editor’s Note: I need to take gift-giving lessons from Sheryl. Wow! -DT]. 

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Mercedes Streeter

What you’re looking at is a piece of Fordite, but it’s also sometimes called Detroit Agate (like I said before), Motor Agate, or Motor City Agate. Calling them agates–stones formed within volcanic rocks where silica-rich water percolates through and minerals crystallize–isn’t entirely correct; they just look the part. In fact, Fordite isn’t forged over thousands of years in volcanic rocks at all, instead, it involves how the automotive industry used to paint cars.

Urban Relic Design, a supplier of Fordite, notes that the material was created several decades ago during car painting processes. Paint chemistry and application have evolved through the history of the car. A century ago, a car would get an oil-based paint, applied with a brush. As industry magazine BodyShop Business writes, paint spray guns have existed since 1887, but the first car to get painted with a spray gun was the 1924 Oakland. Chemist Edmund Flaherty at DuPont invented Duco, nitrocellulose dissolved in a solvent, enhanced with plasticizers, and able to be sprayed.

Duco (1)
DuPont via eBay

This painting process would spread and by the 1930s, automakers were coating cars with nitrocellulose lacquer and alkyd enamel. These paints would be applied in a downdraft spray booth then baked in an oven for hardening and curing.

This process resulted in racks, skids, and conveyors getting covered in overspray. That overspray would then get baked in the oven alongside the car. This process would repeat, as a new car would come in and get painted in a different color. Over time, this created layer upon layer of colorful paint overspray buildup on equipment. Eventually, the paint built up into a rock-hard, multilayered and multicolored mass of acrylic. This sort of “enamel slag” would get removed from equipment and discarded. Some of them were possibly 100 layers thick.

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Amazon

Paint processes evolved, as have the paints themselves. Perhaps the coolest part is that Fordite reflects the time in which it was created. Fordite from very old vehicles might have more brown or green in them. But Fordite from the 1960s and 1970s might come in bold and bright colors, reflecting the vehicle colors of the day. And you might even find metallic colors embedded in Fordite rings.

Yep, that means that you could get Fordite in famous vintage colors like Mopar’s Plum Crazy, AMC’s Big Bad Orange, or Ford’s Anti-Establish Mint.

Hemmings

As I said before, a lot of this paint buildup was trashed. However, at some point, a lightbulb flickered on in someone’s head and the material found a second life. It’s not known exactly when or who came up with the idea, but it was discovered that the discarded material was actually hard enough to be formed into jewelry, and polished into something incredible.

This neat WDIV piece shows Detroit artists forming fordite into beautiful art:

Cindy Dempsey, the owner of Urban Relic Design, says that she first discovered the material in the 1970s. A family friend who worked in car manufacturing brought a piece of what he called “paintrock” over, capturing Dempsey’s interest. She didn’t like that name, and decided to name it like one of her favorite stones, applying the “ite” suffix to “Ford.” Dempsey found that when you sanded through the surface layer of the material, it looked a lot like a real, naturally-occurring agate.

It should be noted that the term “Fordite” has no official relations to Ford. The material came from all sorts of factories, from Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler, to Harley-Davidson, Kenworth, and more.

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Mercedes Streeter

Sheryl won’t reveal where she got my Fordite, but she says that the supplier claims it came from the 1950s. It’s not known which car factory mine came from, but it seems that black and white were popular colors for this sampling. What I love is that a couple of bands appear to be metallic silver.

And on the backside, there are some browns, some red, and more metallic.

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Mercedes Streeter

That’s the other cool thing about Fordite; every piece is unique. And it might become rare someday. As the American Coatings Association notes, the 1980s brought a major change in how cars are painted. Lacquer topcoats weren’t known for their durability, and auto manufacturers were looking for a way to increase paint endurance. At the same time, the Environmental Protection Agency began limiting volatile organic compound emissions. Painting processes changed, including water-borne base coats and two-part, self-curing polyurethane clear coats. These materials are electrostatically-applied.

Painting a car in the modern day is a pretty awesome process, check out this video from Toyota UK going over how the process worked in 2013:

These modern painting processes have given us better paint, and it also means that the huge overspray build ups are a thing of the past. Fordite suppliers say that paint changes of the 1980s means that the fordite “mines” are now dried up. Thus, there is a finite amount of the material left. Exactly how much isn’t known, as who knows how many collectors are sitting on batches of the stuff. As of now, you can buy all kinds of jewelry from a number of suppliers. Heck, you can even buy huge chunks of fordite to do whatever you want with.

But, I will warn you, this stuff can run you a few hundred dollars just for a piece of jewelry, and I have to think it’ll get more expensive as time goes on.

Vintage 1968 True Fordite Rough Agate 1 D460915d30dbcb232bbda0b8bea77b13
Worthpoint

While Sheryl got my piece expecting me to wear it as a necklace, I’m actually going to store it in my display case of my favorite car artifacts. This stuff is just too cool for me to end up losing while off-roading, or inevitably torn up by my adorable, yet destructive conures (basically mini parrots). Can you get some fordite in time for Christmas? Maybe. But honestly, fordite is cool enough to buy any time of year.

(Top photo credit: Bring a Trailer/Mercedes Streeter)

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Mercedes Streeter

 

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32 Responses

  1. My summers during college involved working at an automotive paint plant as a temporary student worker to fill in during the workers’ various summer vacations. One task was to throw a noxious paint stripper goop all over a paint mixer, and then use a combo of manual paint scraper and mini jackhammer to clean it back down to metal. (They did provide gloves, goggles, and respirator, but we still experienced that burning sensation of industrial paint stripper on the skin.) Being more splash-oriented, the strata were not quite as elegant, but still very impressive.

    It was a job that added many colorful stories to my life, and taught me a few lessons about people.

  2. I love Fordite. A few years back my wife bought me a set of Fordite cuff links. Reds, silvers, and blacks. I work as a lawyer in a company connected to the auto industry so its the perfect combo of sleek dressing and uber car nerd for what I do. They even call the uncut pieces of it cabochons, like they are uncut gems.

  3. That’s a mighty lovely piece; it’s evocative of the Great Red Spot of Jupiter. Good to know that Detroit Agate (yeah, not keen on using the name of a virulent antisemite and racist, so ‘Detroit Agate’ it is) is still around & available however in intrinsically finite quantities. Car Talk’s website had a good post about that about twenty (!!) years ago so it’s nice to see that the supplies of Detroit Agate haven’t completely dried up over the past couple decades.

  4. Glad you posted this when you did. Just picked up a couple of pieces for the wife and daughter. Seems like a perfect gift from a gearhead dad.

  5. That’s quite attractive and a fabulous story.
    As for the wonder of modern paint methods…my ’02 Yukon would like a word.
    Whatever doesn’t fly off as I drive down the road doesn’t come off with a chisel.

  6. Eh, that kinda comes across as being dismissive of what’s a mighty lovely and thoughtful gift. To be sure, there’ll be imitations (and pale, at that) of anything out there at places like the craft fairs that you frequent, so buyer beware. There are indeed legitimate sources with provenance, just do due diligence in researching. Anyway, a friend with a body shop ain’t gonna cut it, especially with modern paint materials being so different from what was used decades ago.

    1. That was intended as a reply to a comment elsewhere, not as a comment on its own, not sure why it ended up thusly. Edit function, please!! I daresay I speak for a good number of us when I say that’s all we want for Xmas, ha.

  7. I had never thought much about how cars were painted a hundred years ago until I read the Model Garage* in the January 1926 edition of Popular Science. In it, the meticulous proprietor of the garage carefully flows the paint onto his car with a brush. And here I’d been all this time thinking that it was only sketchy folks like the window cleaning company I worked for years ago that did that.

    *Model Garage ran from 1925 to 1970 and would give symptoms for you to figure out the malady. Good fun for a car nerd–and, read consecutively, yields a fascinating arc of automotive development. Tires , batteries, and antifreezes were interesting early, then pollution controls toward the end. Google Gus Wilson’s Model Garage if looking for a decent time-killer.

  8. I’ve always wanted a Fordite tie bar, but I never found one I liked that wasn’t also bundled with cuff links. And, sorry, but I’ve just never liked the bulk of French cuffs and I’m not buying a set to leave 2/3 of it in the junk drawer forever

  9. Happy Birthday, Mercedes! Just forwarded the video to my Michigan cousins, all from the Pontiac area when they were younger (1970s) Ask them about the Grande Ballroom and they just erupt in gales of laughter!

  10. I am the second owner of my ’67 VW Squareback, purchased at 100k miles in 1978. While prepping for paint, I started sanding out a deep chip on the hood. By the time I had worked that tiny hole out, I counted 23 colors of paint! Colors, probably many more actual layers of multiple coats. The car had not been in any accidents, just regular wear and tear.
    My guess is that that particular hood was rejected a few times at the factory getting a new color each time until it finally was sent out the door.
    The hood popped up one time on the interstate and buckled, so I eventually replaced it.

    1. It seems if I start my comment with a quoted phrase, followed by a double dash (space-separated?) I get a response 403 Forbidden
      (Sorry about all the nonsensical test comments.)

  11. Lovely, and thank you for introducing me to something delightful. I really hope you wear it for nice dinners and such. I gave my wife a pendant about that size and she’s worn it loading pallets, wrangling horses and wrassling dogs for enough decades that I’ve had to replace the bail on it several times.

  12. “Somehow, I made it 30 laps around the sun.”

    Happy birthday and congratulations! And thank you for the link to “finding your way.” I’ve enjoyed your writing for a while now… but somehow missed that one.

  13. Belated Happy Birthday, Mercedes.
    One of my uncles managed a car dealership. When I was a child in the ’70s he had a colourful sphere of “Fordite” from the wall of their spray booth where the painters tested the paint guns. My unreliable memory says it was a couple of inches across, but it was definitely spherical, polished and still smelled faintly of thinners. Over time it shrank and distorted and lost its shine as the thinners gassed out.

  14. Thanks Mercedes and Happy Birthday!
    I loved the video, amazing to see, as expected it’s softer than a lot of natural stones, but worked on the same equipment.

  15. I see this stuff at craft fairs a lot. Most vendors will happily tell you it comes from Detroit from the 50’s, and a 2″x2″ piece easily commands $100.

    Find a friend that works in a body shop. You’ll be able to get this stuff for next to nothing, it just takes a while to build up enough to do anything with.

    1. Eh, that kinda comes across as being dismissive of what’s a mighty lovely and thoughtful gift. To be sure, there’ll be imitations (and pale, at that) of anything out there at places like the craft fairs that you frequent, so buyer beware. There are indeed legitimate sources with provenance, just do due diligence in researching. Anyway, a friend with a body shop ain’t gonna cut it, especially with modern paint materials being so different from what was used decades ago.

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