Traverse City Record-Eagle

September 9, 2013

Old paint sparkles with right touch from local jeweler

By LAURIE MIHOLER-ZACHRITZ Special to the Record-Eagle
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — In its original form it can look a lot like either a u-shaped mystery glob, or a wad of stalactite-shaped drippings fashioned from a dried clump of dough.

But cut and polished, it not only rivals a beautiful piece of jasper or agate, it carries an otherwise lost part of Michigan history within its colorful stripes and whorls.

It’s known as fordite, and dubbed “Motor City Agate” by local stonecutter and jeweler Kevin Gauthier, owner of Korner Gem in Traverse City, and is nothing more than layers of dried up paint, baked to rock hardness over time.

It’s a byproduct of a bygone era of the automotive industry when cars and trucks were spray-painted by hand. The “over-spray” accumulated color-by-color over time in the painting bays and had to be periodically scraped off and removed.

How it got out into the world of jewelry making is anybody’s guess. Gauthier thinks maybe some creative-minded auto worker took it home and started cutting it up, but he said no one really knows.

A recent New York Times article featured Gauthier and reported there are about 10 fordite jewelers in the nation.

“I’ve been getting fordite since the early ‘80s,” Gauthier said, “I originally snubbed my nose at it because it wasn’t a true rock.”

But he learned to appreciate the material by learning to cut it in a way that exposed its special colors and designs.

“It takes a delicate touch,” he said. “If I want blue, I can cut down to the blues in it. It’s like cutting through a ream of paper.”

There are many varieties of fordite, based on the factory it came from. The colors that Ford painted are different from colors of other manufacturers, Gauthier said.

“I always wanted to get paint from a Corvette factory because they had such special, bright colors,” he said. “Typically, the brighter the colors, the better the piece.”

For the over-40 crowd who fondly remember the auto industry’s heyday, the faux gems are popular.

Lisa Vaderloepg, Korner Gem’s designer, called fordite a “trip down memory lane,” while Gauthier said he’s had customers ask for a piece of improved fordite to match the color of favored cars.

Korner Gem creates signature pieces with a fordite front and a Petoskey stone backing to satisfy the nostalgia for all things both automotive and Michigan.

But Gauthier said a time may come when the fordite dries up permanently. It’s already getting scarce, he said.

“Some of the colors from the 70’s and 80’s just can’t be duplicated.”

His last acquisition came 12 years ago from the basement of a Grand Rapids collector. “I would like to find more; supplies are scarce,” he said.