Six years ago, the Internet was still in its first flowering, populated
largely by academics, students, and computer nerds. Although terms
like "information superhighway" were making their way
into mass media, the Internet was still more of a geek paradise
than a serious business tool. It was in those early days that Dr.
E. Aspler of Bangkok, Thailand, staked out an outpost for jewelers
on this electronic frontier. The Orchid e-mail forum began when
Aspler suggested to Canadian jeweler and educator Charles Lewton-Brain
that they use then-cutting-edge e-mail list technology to establish
an online forum for the jewelry industry.
The list has grown to include hundreds of jewelry makers on six
continents. An English-speaking community, the majority of its members
come from the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia,
and New Zealand. But there are also regular posts from participants
in South America, Southeast Asia, Sri Lanka, India, the Middle East,
In an industry often summarized by a joke about how many jewelers
it takes to change a light bulb (five, one to change the bulb and
four to hold screens to hide what he's doing), Orchid's wide open
sharing has made it a valued tool for new and veteran bench jewelers
"I have been making jewelry for 27 years and I taught for
10, but it's impossible to know everything," says Poppy Vincent
of Art Jewelry by Poppy in Chatham, Illinois. "The people here
are so willing to share what they know. So often artists start freaking
out if you pick up a piece of jewelry and start analyzing how it
was made. They're sure their idea is going to be ripped off. Not
so with the Orchid people. They're more than happy to go into great
detail to help you solve any problems you have. [And] it doesn't
matter what you're looking for or what you're trying to do, someone
is bound to have the information you need."
"For me, the best thing Orchid provides is a huge breadth
of responses," says Larry Seiger of LS Hancock in Cary, North
Carolina. "[For example], I put out a message asking for help
finding someone to custom cut a watch crystal for a watch I am building.
Though no one had any idea about where to contact a watch crystal
cutter, I received several responses with such innovative solutions
that I began to refocus my attention to making one myself. I was
able to create my own crystal out of Pyrex glass in my studio. You
just never know with Orchid where your question will take you."
"One of the things that I simply love about Orchid is the
'A-ha!' experience I get almost daily," says Karen Goeller,
an artist-jeweler in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. "Someone writes
in about a problem or a technique they've used, or a new material
or tools they've tried, and light bulbs go on in my head. These
are not things you'll learn in school or even from a single apprenticeship.
They are the collective wisdom of multiple generations of artists
and craftsmen worldwide, passed along in an oral tradition."
The list archives are another important resource. "An example
[of the usefulness of the archives] is my recent interest in a magnetic
pin finisher," says Allen Beck, a goldsmith and lapidary from
Meridian, Idaho. "From the Orchid archives, I learned valuable
tidbits such as: I could use it for stone-in-place castings; Ajax
dish detergent works better and is more economical than burnishing
soap; dropping the water level slightly gives better results; flat
Rubbermaid containers work as well as the original bowls; and small,
round stainless shot does better on flat surfaces than the supplied
pins. All that from one episode of archive searches!"
Beyond sharing tips and tricks, Orchid's deepest value to jewelers
is as a community of peers. "It's not the mechanical or tangible
result that makes Orchid so valuable to me, it's the people,"
says Dave Sebaste of Sebaste Studio in Charlotte, North Carolina.
"For once in my life, I feel connected with people of like
minds and spirits. The friendships and acquaintances I've made through
the Orchid community have given my life an added richness that cannot
"Many of us work in a fairly isolated setting, often spending
a whole day in the studio with no outside contact," agrees
Joel Schwalb of Joel Schwalb Studio in Nyack, New York. "Orchid
has become a major source of communication with the world outside
my studio. The constant open exchange of information is important,
but it is primarily the sense of community that is most important
to me. This is a very giving community, and we all benefit from
Both students and veteran jewelers benefit from that sense of community.
"[Orchid] is a point of contact, one of the few places where
the veterans meet the amateurs," says veteran bench jeweler
David L. Huffman of Cortland, New York, who notes that it's not
just the amateurs who benefit from this exchange. "[Amateurs
often have] an open mind, enthusiasm, humility, respect for accomplishment,
curiosity and a drive for knowledge, and genuine excitement about
the craft. Without contact with these avid learners, we [veteran
bench jewelers] can easily forget why we ever wanted to do this
in the first place. We get to see our lifelong discipline once more
through the eyes of a new generation of artists."
"Orchid has been like an online apprenticeship for me,"
says Brad Smith of West Los Angeles, a retired engineer and Web
site designer turned jeweler. "A given class only exposes you
to a limited set [of techniques]. Books and workshops give you a
wider appreciation, but it is the Orchid forum that has built the
depth of my knowledge. Orchid educates me on the finer details of
a process, allows me to ask questions (where a book doesn't), opens
up my mind to problems I would never have considered, alerts me
to scams and pitfalls, and gives me a sense of community from an
otherwise solitary workbench."
For jewelers located far from the jewelry centers of New York,
Los Angeles, and Providence, the forum has also provided a much
needed resource for locating suppliers. "I found two suppliers-one
caster and one die maker-on Orchid," says Sam Patania of Tucson.
"I have been in the jewelry business all my life, and I need
to work with quality suppliers. Without Orchid, I would not have
been able to get to know these people before I started doing business
with them. Orchid gave me an informal meeting place to meet others
in the industry where I would never have been able to."
For suppliers, Orchid is a way to stay in touch with their market.
"As a supplier of tools and equipment to the jewelry industry,
Orchid discussions are a valuable resource for ideas for new products
and services," says Elaine Corwin, vice president of technical
services for Gesswein in Bridgeport, Connecticut. "It's like
attending a focus group of jewelers every day."
The Orchid community extends beyond the electronic, and beyond
business relationships. Orchid members frequently meet other members
who live nearby, enjoy get-togethers at trade shows, and even stay
in each other's homes when traveling. At least one marriage has
resulted from contacts first made on Orchid.
The list continues to be moderated by Aspler, who sifts through
up to 5,000 e-mails a day to select the 30 to 50 messages that list
recipients receive. Funded solely by donations, Orchid depends on
the generosity of participants to pay for the technology needed
to keep the list alive, but Aspler remains committed to keeping
it free to all." I truly believe the people who benefit most
are those who cannot afford the subscription," he says. "People
who are new to the industry, students, small scale hobbyists, retired
people, [and] unemployed people cannot afford a subscription."
It is just that commitment to inclusion that has made Orchid a haven
not just for students and industry newcomers, but to veteran jewelers
as well. While the Internet may not have lived up to the early hype
of changing the world, in this little corner of the information
superhighway, Orchid has created a genuine global village.