The History of the BDSMblem
Once upon a time, back when America Online (AOL) was a
feisty little upstart company going up against the big boys,
it was home to a number of great little communities —
including a warm, spunky and often persecuted BDSM
community. By the end of 1994 AOL had grown enormously and
the BDSM community had grown with it, overspilling its one
original meeting room and splintering into several
subcommunities. Still, much of the interaction among
long-timers took place in a couple of chat rooms and a D/s
folder in the Relationships bulletin board of the Issues in
Mental Health area.
It was on that bulletin board sometime in late '94 that a
discussion about a BDSM symbol evolved from this progression
of questions: How many of us there really were out there in
any random crowd? How many could not afford to be out about
their BDSM interests for fear of persecution? Could there be
a way to spot each other in a friendly, non-trolling way?
Was there perhaps a symbol we could wear to identify
ourselves to each other without anyone in the often hostile
vanilla world being the wiser?
The conversation progressed both on the board and in private
email. The Leather Pride flag came up, of course, but that
didn't suit various peoples needs for any combination of 4
My volunteering to come up with a symbol and look into
having pins made met with immediate encouragement. So my
first step was to solicit input on ideas. I set out these
- Some considered themselves to be in a different
sub-culture than the "leather" folks so they didn't feel
like the Leather Pride symbol was really quite theirs.
- Some feared that the Leather Pride symbol was too well
known to be surreptitious enough. It was a Pride symbol,
after all, and meant to declare BDSM interest loudly,
making it unsuitable for those who needed discretion.
- Some thought that the symbol, even if not well-known,
so obviously had a meaning that they didn't want to be
asked what the pin they were wearing meant.
- Some just plain didn't like the way it looked.
- Hadn't been — and wasn't likely to be — co-opted by
teens, bikers, or heavy metal fans
- Was subtle and discreet enough so that it could be
worn in a vanilla environment without raising eyebrows
- Was distinctive enough to be recognized by those "in
An image takes shape
One idea was repeated
several times — take it from the description of the ring
from The Story of O. At least one person drew a quick
sketch of what they thought that looked like, which
paralleled the way I saw it in my head at the time. The
sketch to the left became my initial proposal to the
group. This drawing was created in CorelDraw through some
convoluted approach that I'm sure any real graphic artist
would get a hearty laugh over, but By The Sticky Fingers
of Harcourt Fenton Mudd, I did it and I'm proud of it! :-)
This design did not remain long, however, for various
reasons, most of them having to do with my coming to
realize that this design meant something already.
I soon learned that other people had an alternate idea of
what the "O" symbol was, and it was somewhat different
from what I'd drawn. In the other descriptions I read, the
ends of each spoke, rather than terminating into the rim,
continued to curve back down and around until it formed
something like a curved P. You'll find a clumsy
representation of that design, as well as the one above,
on the What Is & Isn't the BDSMblem
Furthermore, I heard that some company was already
marketing "O" jewelry in that form. The difference in
design was actually a relief because I was having second
thoughts about duplicating the book's description. It
sounded like possible copyright infringement and I wanted
no part of any such thing. I protect my own intellectual
rights and I respect others' as well. Therefore, the idea
of a design inspired by, but not identical to, the "O"
design made far more sense. I pointed this out to the rest
of the group and got little response and no disagreement.
Apparently, the whole thing had pretty much been left in
my hands to do with as I saw fit.
Even if this was not the "O" design, however, there was
another potential legal problem. It was such a simple and
nice design. What were the chances that somebody was
already using it for, say, a corporate logo? They seemed
too high for my comfort. I had visions of people wearing
pins like this — or perhaps shirts with the design — at a
company picnic and being approached by smiling folks to
chat about favorite whips. Or even company executives who
were BDSMers themselves discovering the Emblem and turning
red, directing their lawyers to send one of those "It has
come to our attention" letters my way.
What I later realized is that I had indeed seen that
design before, but not as a corporate logo. It's a design
common in old Celtic artwork and often referred to as a
Celtic Triskele. It's still popular as a symbol of Celtic
tradition and is used by those who follow Celtic Pagan
spirituality. It's frequently found in jewelery, in
historical art and even, yes, in logos. In my mind, that
opened a door of opportunity. What could be better, from a
standpoint of discretion, than having a symbol which was
just similar enough to something neutral so as not to
raise attention? It would be a form of camouflage. What
was needed were differences in detail to make the BDSMblem
recognizable as the BDSM symbol and not something else.
The BDSMblem's resemblance to a 3-part version of the
Yin-Yang symbol had, of course, been obvious from the
beginning. So my first thought was to add dots inside the
black fields. That thought did not stay with me long. For
one thing, that might turn out to be an existing
copyrighted symbol just as easily as the other. And there
was a nagging feeling that I had seen such a design as
that before too — this time as an Eastern religious symbol
of some kind. I have since been told that the design I was
thinking of is known as a Chaos Wheel, but I've yet to
verify that name. I do now know that variations of a
dotted version have a rich history in Asian arts,
particularly in various Buddhist and Taoist traditions. I
needed a variation virtually certain to be unique — either
that or a lottery win that would enable me to pay for an
expensive trademark search.
When the solution struck me it seemed both so obvious and
so perfect that I actually chuckled out loud. I would use
holes instead of dots. The use of holes was highly
significant. For one thing, it would mean that the symbol
would reveal its true design only in 3-dimensions. Not
that holes can't easily be portrayed in 2-dimensional
drawings, but they are an unnecessary complication — not
the sort of thing that somebody would take as a
trademarked corporate symbol. Furthermore, the meaning for
the Emblem was already beginning to form in my mind and
holes fit into the scheme beautifully, as you know from
reading the explanation.
The idea becomes the Pin Project
Perhaps I should back up a moment here and note that at
this point there really wasn't "The Emblem," as it
initially came to be called. Not that that is much
of a name either, but if the thing had any name at all at
the time I'm now describing it was, "That pin thing that
Quag is working on." In fact, the whole endeavor was being
referred to simply as The Pin Project, which I had
christened it for lack of anything better.
It would be misleading to say that the entire group
discussing the developing symbol signed off on my revised
design. It would be more accurate to say that the response
was, "Yeah, okay, great, when can you get the pins made?
We're waiting!" So once I knew that nobody had found any
problems I'd overlooked, I went seeking a manufacturer.
Actually, there was a bit of overlap, but now all the
emphasis was on deciding who would make the thing. I found
several companies that made lapel pins and ordered samples
of their work. But one stood out from the rest.
As I said, we were calling this the Pin Project, but about
this time (which must have been early '95) a few of the
women added a very reasonable twist to the plans. They
wanted to know if this symbol could be produced as a
pendant for a necklace as well as a pin. I promised to
look into that. Others were asking about everything from
rings to wristwatches, but that seemed premature.
The company I settled on was more expensive than the
others but hardly unreasonable. I proposed them to the
- They would cast the pins as metal medallions rather
than stamping them from plastic.
- They would make pendants with no need for an
additional costly mold as long as they were the same
size as the pin.
- They could provide several finishes and additional
products down the line.
- They would put the medallion on a Zippo lighter, and I
wanted one of those.
I asked the group if the the resulting price (anywhere
from about $15 to about $20, depending on finish) was
within the range they had in mind and got back a
resounding and multiple, "Yes! Let's go!!"
I sent the manufacturer a large drawing of the design and
a check for the initial mold making and we settled on
manufacturing specs. Then I settled down to wait for the
The idea spreads
It was about this
time that the project left the confines of AOL and moved
to the Net. Particularly to the alt.sex.bondage newsgroup
(ASB — raise your hand if you remember newsgroups). I
placed posts there explaining what was going on and
inviting any who were interested in joining the Pin
Project to send me email. Many did and received a more
detailed explanation of the project and this now archaic
early sketch. (UUEncoded. Who remembers when we had to do
that?). Many of those folks eventually ordered pins and
pendants. This, by the way, was also the first version of
the emblem ever to appear on the Web when it was kindly
posted by the Multics webmaster at Wizvax.
The Emblem concept did not exactly create a storm of
applause or controversy — at least not by ASB standards —
but it did come in for a fair share of discussion. I
remember that there were a couple people who seemed to
consider the idea an affront to the Leather Pride symbol
and disparaged the whole thing. Others supported it.
Meanwhile, I was collecting orders. I had fronted the
money for the initial minting and was paying for lots of
online time and phone calls. Younger readers may not
remember the Days of Yore when AOL charged by the minute,
but many of us oldsters still do. And, Oh Heavens Above do
I remember those phone bills! After all that, I couldn't
afford to purchase a large initial run and just hope that
the orders would come. So I was taking orders in advance
with the agreement that the checks would sit here uncashed
until product was shipped. Since folks opted to trust me,
I soon had a manilla envelope fat with pre-orders.
At the end of March, 1995, I had the prototypes on hand.
They were wrong. The mint had left out the holes and the
mold had an imperfection in one of the curved arms. They
apologized and promised corrections in about a week. The
new prototypes appeared on April 7 with the errors
corrected and a brand new one in its place — the circle
was out of whack. On April 15, a day not generally noted
for good news, I sent a notice out to all who had ordered
or expressed interest. It began: "Okay, I just received
the third set of prototypes and this time they're
gorgeous!!! So we're ready to roll!"
We had agreed to allow a few more weeks for last minute
pre-orders, so the initial production order was placed
during the second week of May, 1995. The first pins and
pendants went out about six weeks later. For some time
after, orders continued to trickle in, allowing me
to place several small production orders and kept
just enough on hand to meet the demand. Despite the fact
that the rallying cry had always been, "We need a pin,"
from the outset, pendants outsold pens by a whole bunch to
one. It only made sense to drop the name "the pin project"
and I've been calling this effort "The Emblem Project"
During late 1997, the Emblem exploded across the web. As
more people became aware of the Emblem and the Project,
good things started happening. Orders increased to the
point where I could expand the line into key tags and
money clips and eventually into precious metal items of
sterling silver and 14K gold. Silverfoot created the first
version of a long-awaited Emblem Ring. The project took up
more and more of my time but it was more than paying for
itself and kept growing. In fact, as sales grew, I was
able to make increasingly large productions orders that
allowed me to dramatically lower prices even as my
producers raised their rates.
Over the years, new products have come and gone and demand
has grown and waned and as economic matters allowed. The
Emblem was more than 10 years old when it finally struck
me that the name "The Emblem," chosen simply because I
couldn't think of anything better, should have been called
the BDSMblem. I never got around to changing that but am
doing so now with the late 2012 revision of this web site.
More changes and developments are no doubt ahead. I'm as
eager as anybody to find out what they'll be.