Fordite Brooch

(Click on an image to enlarge it.)

March, 2016
Sterling silver, fine silver, copper, nickel, auto-body paint (Aka “Fordite”)
5.6cm x 4.9cm x 7mm
(HxWxD; measured at the thickest point.)

This brooch was created in response to both a penchant that I have for materials which are made up of many tiny layers or accretions, and the fine line between the “genuine” and the “fake” that I write about in my MFA thesis. Here is a section taken from it that relates to this piece:

The process of accretion, the building up of layers, and the fine line between “fake” and “genuine” are all internally referenced throughout this brooch. Working from the inside out, we begin with the colorful, hexagonal cabochon set in the lower center of the brooch. This material is most commonly referred to as “Fordite”, however it has become colloquially known “Detroit Agate” and “Motor Agate” as well. At its core, it is a lump of hardened auto-body paint which formed as a result of a (now obsolete) industrial process: automobiles were hand spray painted by workers in large batches. Over time the over-spray from this process would build up, layer by layer, on the racks which these cars were painted on and create a waste product that looks similar to a stalactite. At some point, one of these workers got the bright idea to cut and shape these accretions, revealing the colorful pattern on the inside. Eventually the word got out, and there was a genuine demand for this waste product—workers began saving it instead of throwing it out, and people started visiting auto body shops with the express purpose of offering to take that waste material off their hands. In the years since, auto body companies phased out this process of painting cars in favor of one which uses an electrostatic process to attract the paint to the car—thus using less paint and no longer leaving this appreciable residue.

In recent years the demand for “Fordite” has done nothing if not grown; this waste material has gained value through both its formal qualities and its ties to the automotive industry. There is a romanticism that speaks to the power, speed, form, and function of automobiles as well as the sense of patriotism: every layer present within a piece of this material represents millions of cars made here in America—and with the recent economic collapse and subsequent closing of a substantial amount of automotive factories across the country, it is not hard to see why someone would want to hold on to that.

Moving outward, we have a rippling sheet of copper and silver that serves as the background to this cabochon. This sheet was produced using a process known as “Mokume-Game”, which traces its origins back to the 17th century in Japan where it was used as a decorative element on ornamental swords. On the technical level, the process involves taking sheets of metals with similar working properties and bonding them together into one solid metal by using heat, pressure, and time. The result of this process is a block (or billet) of metal with alternating layers of sheet metal stacked on top of one another.

The name “Mokume-Gane” roughly translates to “wood grain metal”, as it resembles the grain of wood when the billet further hammered, distorted, and shaped. Mokume fits within the realm of the imposter when it is compared to Fordite, as it has been created through a very deliberate and relatively unforgiving process to replicate something which naturally occurs within nature: wood. However, that does not seem to impact its value as far as the jewelry market is concerned; while still somewhat of a niche product, compared to Fordite, mokume is significantly more desirable and valuable due to the precious materials which go into making it, and this material’s ability to be patterned. So great is this ability, in fact, that I was able to control and manipulate it in such a way that a series of orderly hexagons are present throughout its layers, and I was able to acid etch and deform it to evoke a sense of gradual accretion.

Finally, we move on to the outer rim: a sterling silver hexagon with an apparent buildup of lines. This element was produced using a computer assisted process known as 3d printing. I had created this shape by using a program on a computer, and then instructed a printer to produce it. This printer works by translating the digital model into a set of instructions that it then uses to extrude layers of plastic on to a tray. It is this building up of plastic layers that gives 3d printed objects such as this one their characteristic texture. In a way, this element is the most “fake” of them all: the printer has been programed to produce an object by utilizing an algorithm which breaks down an object designed by a human, and re-creates it in an efficient manner dictated by the cold logic of a machine. This final element frames the whole piece, and leads us to question this relationship between the accidental, controlled, and mechanized building of layers along with the genuine, the imposter, and the replicated.