Seeds of Knowledge

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, and Europe.

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 alike.

“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 be measured.”

“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 participating.”

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.

Originally Published by American Jeweler Magazine, December 2002