Is &

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 different reasons:
  • 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.
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 guidelines:
  • 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 or questions
  • Was distinctive enough to be recognized by those "in the know"

An image takes shape

Image 1One 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 page.

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 group because:

  • 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 prototypes. Sorta.

The idea spreads

Design 2It 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" ever since.

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.