Gem Profile- Fordite
by Judy Ellis
Automotive paint is one of those small things that is taken for granted, yet we tend to choose a vehicle based on the color of the paint even more than the color of the upholstery! When Henry Ford first started rolling his products off the assembly line, he was asked what colors the vehicles came in. He replied, "Any color you want, as long as it's black!" The painting process at this time was very time-consuming and tedious taking several days to paint, with a brush, each layer of black lacquer and allow it to dry. The workers at Ford Motors would rub the entire chassis down with pumice between each layer as well. This process often caused a bottle neck at the factory and slowed production. There had to be a better way.
Enter the DuPont Company

In 1924, DuPont, in conjunction with General Motors, developed a nitrocellulose paint lacquer that dried fast and came in several colors, the most popular of which was blue. They also developed a sprayer for the paint virtually eliminating the brushing process for painting. This was still an air-dried lacquer, but it was a faster process and sped up production at the factory. New paint came in the 1930s that was enamel instead of lacquer and it was baked on the the car's frame. This paint lasted longer and retained its shine better over time. The automobile was mounted on an assembly stand and pulled into the painting room, sprayed by a person and baked in place, then pulled down the line for further assembly. The paint overspray on the walls and assembly stands would also be baked in place, making a very hard, thick product.

Red Heart Fordite Pendant by Joan Madouse in sterling silver-filled wire and Red Fordite pendant wire wrapped in silver-filled wire by Joan Madouse
Judy Ellis's Gem Profile- Fordite - , General Education, , Red Fordite heart pendant
Judy Ellis's Gem Profile- Fordite - , General Education, , Red Fordite pendant
Over time, the layers of paint would build up and make it difficult to pull the car chassis through the painting process and the workers would chip the paint off the metal sleds and walls. In the 1960s and 70s, acrylic paint was introduced that was more durable and weather-resistant than the enamel being used at the time, creating a buildup of vibrant colors in defined layers on the overspray. Workers noticed this material building up, and they would clear it away and take it home, forming it into shapes. Voila...Fordite, or Motor Agate, was born!

These Fordite cabochons are courtesy of Becky House.
Judy Ellis's Gem Profile- Fordite - , General Education, , Fordite cabochons
About Fordite

Fordite is not really a gemstone, but the buildup of layer upon layer of acrylic enamel paint that has been baked over and over again, making it very hard and durable.

This purple, black, and white Fordite cabochon almost looks like birds-eye rhyolite, with the many small eyes! Wrapped by Joan Madouse.
Judy Ellis's Gem Profile- Fordite - , General Education, , Mottled fordite pendant
The lapidary process for Fordite is similar to other stones, though care does need to be taken since it is in such defined layers and may have hairline cracks from the removal process at the factory. I couldn't find any information about the hardness on Mohs scale, but it is a medium-hard material with some earlier specimens being a little softer due to the composition of the paint. That's recycling!

Lee Zimmerman kindly allowed us to show you this image of Fordite rough, one that he has used to cut cabs from.
Judy Ellis's Gem Profile- Fordite - , General Education, , Rough Fordite
You may be wondering as to the lead content and safety of the paint. The paint is an acrylic material that does contain lead. Lead is absorbed into our bodies through breathing, our mucus membranes, ingestion, and occasionally through cuts or scrapes. However, inorganic lead that is contained in paint is not easily absorbed through our skin, even through a cut or scrape, so unless you are going to eat it, there is really no danger in wearing a piece of Fordite.

There are several different types of Fordite some having separated colors and regular banding with a primer layer in between while other are color on color with metallics and limited color ranges. Add in the color from drips and swirls most likely from the walls and floor of the painting rooms, and you have very neat patterns.

Joan Madouse wrapped this blue Fordite diamond-shaped pendant in sterling silver-filled wire. It could nearly have a bit of druzy in the middle!
Judy Ellis's Gem Profile- Fordite - , General Education, , Diamond fordite pendant
Where is Fordite from?

Fordite also comes from several different places. Great Britain has some beautiful specimens that not only have the opaque colors, but metallic and transparency to some of the layers too. Detroit Fordite, although not necessarily from Detroit, is American in origin and usually has a gray primer layer between the vibrant colors. Ohio Fordite is another American original and comes from the factories that painted vans, so the colors can be earth-tones of green and brown or the more vibrant colors of the 70s with yellow, orange and bright blues.

Wavy Fordite Pendant by Joan Madouse in silver-filled wire and a Fordite piece, wrapped by Joan Madouse, almost looks like it could be a thunder egg!
Judy Ellis's Gem Profile- Fordite - , General Education, , Waves fordite pendant
Judy Ellis's Gem Profile- Fordite - , General Education, , Thunder Egg Fordite pendant
Why Fordite is a Collector's Item

Automobiles are no longer painted in this way today, because the painting process is automated and the chassis charged to attract the paint molecules, so there is virtually no waste. Because of this, Fordite is a finite material that is quickly running out, but what a great piece of automotive history!

Resources & Recommended Reading

Lead Poisoning - Wikipedia
Fordite on MinDat


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