Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

c.2013 New York Times News Service

DETROIT — With its layers of colors and psychedelic swirls, fordite resembles jasper or Mexican crazy lace. And though fordite is crafted into eye-catching jewelry, it is not a gemstone — rather, it is dried paint that built up, layer upon layer, in factories that built automobiles long ago.

And because many of the plants that produced it have been razed or mothballed, jewelry made of this material — known as enamel slag or “rough” — has nostalgic appeal.

“It’s a fun and interesting piece of history, a slice of Americana,” said Cindy Dempsey, an Illinois jeweler and designer who has been working with fordite for nearly a decade. “I’ve had people look at a piece and say, ‘That looks like a piece of the Ford Fairlane that I used to have.’”

The material was created through automakers’ now-defunct practice of spray painting cars by hand. Overspray in the painting bays gradually accumulated on the tracks and skids on which vehicles rested while they were painted. Over time, myriad colorful layers would build up in the ovens where the cars’ paint was hardened under high heat.

Eventually, the built-up paint had to be removed. No one can say how and when the byproduct first left the plants, but Dempsey said it was likely that some pieces were simply pocketed as curios.

James Pease, who worked in the trim department at a Ford plant in Dearborn, Mich., in 1967, recalls contractors cleaning paint booths during model changes.

“I remember all the beautiful colors of the chunks, and such a wide variety,” he said. Dempsey, 46, remembers seeing raw fordite in the mid-1970s. A family friend who worked for one of the Detroit automakers told her that her vividly painted Pet Rocks — a fad product in the 1970s — resembled pieces from the plant where he worked. He brought a chunk and showed it to her.

“It was probably a hundred layers thick,” Dempsey said. “He said, ‘We call it paint rock.’”

She used sandpaper to showcase the paint lump’s colors, then topped the finished stone with varnish. It became the prototype for her later creations.

Paint slag has been around in quantity since the 1920s, according to Ford Motor Co. Why it’s called fordite is unknown, although it refers to a byproduct at all old auto plants, not just Ford’s. (The material is also called Detroit agate and motor agate.)

As with gemstones, there are many varieties. Unlike gemstones, the types tend to be classified — by those in the know — by the factories they came from.

The big auto companies stopped producing the raw material for fordite when the painting process was automated, starting in the late 1970s. Cars and trucks are now painted in an electrostatic process that essentially eliminates overspray.

Fordite’s hardness is the reason it can be cut and polished, said Kevin Gauthier, a stonecutter and jewelry designer who owns Korner Gem in Traverse City, Mich., and has worked with fordite more than 30 years. In the old paint process, the combined single application of paint, primer and hardener made slag “like a rock,” he said. Now, machines apply primer followed by color and several layers of clear coat.

Much of the old paint contains lead, jewelers acknowledge, but they say it isn’t harmful unless consumed. However, some states, including California, are restricting the sale of jewelry that contains dangerous lead levels. (For adults, the limit is 60,000 parts per million, according to the state’s Department of Toxic Substances Control.)


Gauthier says fordite jewelry is most popular with people older than 40, particularly those with ties to Michigan. “Some people only collect certain colors because that’s their favorite car,” he said.

Miranda Leaver, an Internet entrepreneur and former Detroit area resident, recently bought two rings through — one aqua and one orange, colors especially popular in the 1950s and ’60s. The orange one “screams muscle car,” she said, adding that her rings get a lot of attention in North Carolina, where she now lives.

“When I explain what they are, folks get very enthused,” she said.


In working with the raw material, Dempsey first slices it to check for patterns, then trims what she doesn’t need and shapes the rough piece with a grinder. Next, she polishes the surface and tests for jewelry-quality strength. She makes about 500 of the pieces a year and sells them for $70 to $300. Dempsey figures she’s one of about 10 fordite jewelers in the nation.

The material is a finite resource, but Dempsey has been hoarding it for years and has a few suppliers.

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