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.