Studio Notes: Fordite Man, Hurbert Whittaker — The Man, The Myth, The Legend

Hurbert Whittaker is Fordite Man. At a small lakeside show in Michigan, he wears a huge Fordite cabochon around his neck as he and his wife, Kim, sell the colorful hunks of paint non-stop.

Fordite, which goes by a host of other names, is recycled from Detroit’s auto industry. Most of it was created around the 1950s to the 1970s when car bodies were painted with colorful spray enamels as they passed by on assembly plant rails. Every time factory equipment got gunked up with hundreds of layers of hard, heat-treated paint, workers would chip it off and throw it away. Those with lapidary experience took some of the stuff home and cut it into cabs for jewelry. Others stockpiled it in their basements and forgot about it.

No matter where it’s stashed these days, Hurbert has a talent for finding generous quantities of it. Three years ago, he bought a 50-gallon drum of the material for $20,000 from a retired factory worker. “It’s a part of history, and people tell us their grandparents worked in one of the plants,” he says. As for those chunks forgotten in the basement, descendants often throw it away. Or they approach him with questions.

“We’ve been helping people to find out what they have,” Hurbert says, noting that he pays a fair price for the material, and recently bought a 10-pound chunk from a woman. At their home in Charlevoix, Hurbert and Kim cut and cab the glossy material and sell it to jewelers. (Hurbert says he learned how to do it from his father, the Rev. Marshall Collins.) They also do a thriving business making Petoskey stone items. Then, the day after Christmas they head for Quartzsite, AZ where they sell more of their merchandise.

The Whittakers price their rough at $2 a gram; finished cabs go for $20 to $40, and unlike most dealers, they have a lot of it. Meanwhile, Hurbert is looking for vintage paint material created by Harley Davidson plants in Milwaukee and the Detroit tank factories of World War II. “If I could get my hands on that I think it would be more valuable, because Harley is a big name,” he says.

The Whittakers do not operate a web site. For more information, call them at 231-392-5246, or send them an email at [email protected]. If you have a problem getting in touch with him, contact me at [email protected]. Check out the April 2017 issue of Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist to learn more about Fordite.

Betsy Lehndorff has been writing for Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist since 2010. Her story on Colorado diamonds appears in the September-October issue and she will be writing about her experience in Kate Wolf’s class in 2018 along with her grant writing adventures as a silversmith. You can reach her at [email protected]

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