The New Fordite? Detroit Rebel Turns Graffiti into Gemstones

Who knew papery thin layers of graffiti paint could be turned into gemstones? And help a community to flower?

At Rebel Nell in Detroit, a team of professionals, trainees, and volunteers transform piles of sloughed off paint into solid, colorful material, then cut and shape it into cabochons. These manmade gemstones are set in jewelry and sold through 34 stores in 12 states, from New York to California. Prices range from around $20 to $200.

How Graffiti Gemstones Work

The process for stabilizing these gemstones is secret, says Taylor Thorn, a spokeswoman for Rebel Nell. So, my guess is that it probably involves some heating, pinpoint pressure, and epoxy resin until layers of color pop through.

graffiti gemstones and jewelry from Rebel Yell

Photo by Jacob Lewkow.

Some of the finished material is punched out into specific forms—such as a shape of the state of Michigan, she says. Three creative designers in training also cut their own imaginative shapes. Supported by a small team of silversmiths, their designs are set in sterling silver and sold as one-of-a-kinds.

Much of the graffiti has been collected from many of Detroit’s abandoned railroad corridors and infrastructure, according to the Rebel Nell website.

“It looks like pieces of paper,” Thorn says. Over time, graffiti artist after artist coats an outdoor surface, such as a bridge girder, with 20 to 25 layers of paint. Exposed to Detroit’s grinding summers and winters, “eventually that paint will get too heavy for the wall or crack and flake off.”

The Graffiti-to-Gemstones Factory

In more recent times, Rebel Nell has teamed up with The Alley Project, a nonprofit group that teaches street art and creative expression in Detroit’s inner city. Dozens of young people use cans of nontoxic spray paint after school to create layer after layer of art on designated walls.

“They paint and they paint and they paint and they paint,” Thorn says. When the material is eventually lifted off, it goes to Rebel Nell, completing a self-sustaining loop.

Thorn noted that the paint is tested for lead. But since the spray paint is contemporary, there haven’t been any issues. Lead paint was banned in 1978.

graffiti gemstones and jewelry from Rebel Yell

Photo by Jacob Lewkow.

About Rebel Nell

Rebel Nell was born when Detroit jewelry maker Amy Peterson found some chunks of graffiti paint. Peterson and friend Diana Roginson developed a way to stabilize the material for jewelry, and Rebel Nell was launched in early 2013.

The name, Thorn says, was inspired by Eleanor Roosevelt, who as a young woman was nicknamed Little Nell. Wife of a president, Roosevelt emerged from the constraints of her time to promote solutions to social problems.

Rebel Nell also is socially conscious, and works with other Motor City organizations to find employees in need. Based out of Ponyride, a collaborative space at 1401 Vermont St. in Corktown, the company creates the merchandise and handles the marketing. Since its founding,

Thorn says, Rebel Nell has earned over $1 million in revenue and has taught and empowered 17 women.

Want more? Graffiti gems are similar to Fordite, and you can learn more about Fordite in the April 2017 issue of Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist.

Betsy Lehndorff has been writing for Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist since 2010. 

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