This is probably going to be short, as there’s not a whole lot of information on the topic. It had a very limited window of production, and is gaining in popularity, making it rare, but it’s not really… historical, or a thing that there’s been a lot written about. There are lots of pictures, so there will be a fair amount here too. Having grown up and lived most of my life in metro-Detroit, the auto business is everywhere. This is another one where I’m not sure where I first heard of Fordite, probably on some clickbait article with pretty pictures, to be honest. But it’s interesting.
Fordite is a man-made “stone” created in car factories before the 1970s. It’s also called Detroit Agate, Motor Agate, and paint rock. The agate moniker comes because of the similarity in appearance to real agates. Before the 1970s, auto plants painted cars in bays, by hand. The coats of paint would be heated to harden the paint, and more layers would be added. Paint would build up in the tracks in the ground, and would also be heated and hardened. Some of the tracks had up to one hundred layers of paint in them. The paint would just build up until it became too thick to work around, and then it would be removed.
James Pease, an auto worker in 1967, “recalls contractors cleaning paint booths during model changes” (1). An urban legend has it that workers would just bring home pieces for their family members. Cindy Dempsey, one of the first people to make Fordite jewelry (more on that in a bit), recalled being shown some of this layered paint in the 1970s. “A family friend who worked for one of the Detroit automakers told her that her vividly painted Pet Rocks … resembled pieces from the plant where he worked. He brought a chunk and showed it to her” (2). Cindy “used sandpaper to showcase the paint lump’s colors, then topped the finished stone with varnish. It became the prototype for her later creations” (3).
In the late 1970s, the auto companies changed the way they painted cars. No longer was the process done by hand, and the paint was different too. The paint nowadays is electrostatically attached to the cars, and there is almost no excess paint sprayed. Because of this, there’s no buildup of paint on the floor or otherwise.
Fordite was not unique to Detroit, and the name is misleading: all built up paint from old car factories is called Fordite. Fordite from Detroit generally has layers of a grey primer between the layers of colorful paint. In Ohio, where a lot of vans were produced, the colors are more earthy, though there are pops of colors from the 1970s. In Great Britain, there are more opaque, metallic, and translucent layers (4). Fordite can be dated by the colors in the pieces: in the 40s there were more blacks and browns, giving way to lots of brighter colors into the 60s. Fordite collectors and experts can even tell which company or factory the sample came from.
As mentioned earlier, Cindy Dempsey was one of the first people to make Fordite into jewelry. Now you can find quite a number of sellers online and, presumably, in shops. (One website I found, in addition to selling Fordite jewelry, sells jewelry from old bowling balls as well.) Original Fordite does contain lead, but generally not in levels that are harmful, and not usually unless ingested. Modern jewelers can recreate Fordite because of it being a finite resource, and so real Fordite is much more valuable. Fordite is popular for its nostalgia factor and because it is a recycled material and so more eco-friendly.
So that’s Fordite. Like I thought, a short article, but pretty pictures! I’d love to have something made of it, but at the prices it goes for, that’s probably a bit of a long shot unless I save up. Next week, back to something with a bit more substance!