By Pamela Schipper | Photography by Hilary Schwab
It’s the ultimate in geekery. Jewelry, home and office décor created from 1980s printed circuit boards … jewelry findings, components and imitation stones from Providence, Rhode Island (the costume jewelry capital of the world) … vintage beads from the Far and Middle East, Africa and Europe … and bits and bobs of scrap metal.
Sometimes the techie beauty shines. Pencil boxes, full-size clipboards and minimagnetic ones are shaped and built by Joel Arem out of blue, green, red, yellow and buff printed circuit boards (PCBs). Steel metal bookends from the 1940s are painted black and adorned with hand-cut PCBs, geometric steel pieces and steel dots from a scrap metal facility. Sun catchers, rimmed by old black rubber gaskets or metal bangle bracelets, draw light through the photography film used to make a circuit board.
Other times, beneath Debby Arem’s designing hand, the color and circuitry of the PCB morphs organic. With the help of vintage Japanese millefiori glass beads and old brass, a dark green PCB explodes into a funky fish clock. Another PCB time travels into the “steampunk era” and transforms into a gold-washed brooch adorned with 1970s brass and 1960s Italian glass cabochons. A hand-knotted, silk cord necklace that doubles as a brooch dangles with an almost Native American flair, its PCB pendant shining with vintage red anodized aluminum, white scrap brass, dyed red buffalo horn beads, red chalcedony stone beads, silver-plated etched beads and German hematite glass cabochons.
The Arems call their geekery “Three-Ring Circuits,” and it’s aptly named. Debby and Joel just have so much fun! They juggle ideas late into the night, turn materials on their heads and create smiles.
That said, life in their private Gaithersburg studio isn’t a circus. Beads, jewelry findings and components, scrap metal, PCBs and sundry recyclables like old vinyl 45s and computer keyboard characters—what Debby refers to as her “palette”—are lovingly labeled and shelved.
But when they talk about their art, their eyes shine like awestruck kids discovering for the first time the wonder of the circus. “I know it sounds really corny, but I love what I do,” says Debby.
The story of the Arems and their art began many years ago, long before there was a green movement. Debby Arem was working for the Smithsonian, using her American University B.A. in Fine Arts with a focus in silkscreen to do really neat things like matte and frame works for the Rembrandt exhibit at the National Gallery of Art. Joel, a Harvard Ph.D. in mineralogy, had recently left his curator position at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History to form his own gem consulting business. The two met on a blind date. That was the late 1970s.
By the early ‘80s, Joel was circuiting the globe, buying gems and beads. He would travel twice a year to Hong Kong and Taiwan where “the bead business was roaring and it was really very upscale, a lot of gemstones and high-quality components, perfectly round and polished,” says Joel. “By going to the Far East, I was able to get shapes and materials that they were just introducing but that hadn’t hit the U.S. market yet.”
Joel and Debby built up their inventory. Pre-ban ivory, hand-carved lapis, crystal and black onyx, coral, cinnabar, Ming Dynasty porcelain shards salvaged from the rubble of China’s Cultural Revolution, cloisonné and more—all of it now vintage. “Then the business sort of peaked and died down,” Joel continues. “You don’t see any of the good beads anymore. It’s all gone. Hundreds and hundreds of materials that we were able to get back then. Wait until you see our inventory.”
At first, Debby traveled with him. She remembers being the first woman ever inside a Swat emerald mine in Pakistan in 1982—the same mines taken over by the Taliban in 2009. Beyond the adventure of discovery, Debby loved the variety of beads. Jewelry-making drew her as silk screening had with its shapes, colors, textures and layering.
In 1982, she began her vintage jewelry line. It took off almost by accident. “I was actually pregnant with my daughter and my hairdresser at the time worked at Bloomingdales. She saw my stuff and she said, ‘You should really come and talk to the buyer here,’” Debby recalls. She was thrilled when Bloomingdales gave her a trunk show.
Debby went on to sell this BEADLES line at stores and museums like I. Magnin, Famous and Barr, Saks Fifth Avenue, Garfinkles, Bloomingdales, the Seattle Museum of Fine Art, the Chicago Art Institute, the Smithsonian and the Smithsonian Catalog. At one point, she had so many orders that she had five people helping her to hand-knot and string her more than 300 designs.
Joel, meanwhile, was busy traveling, writing books on minerals and gems and photographing the world of rocks, minerals and people around him. Never one to sit still, in 1987 and 1988, he had a business building computers.
One day, Debby came to his office and saw them putting together a computer. “I had never used a computer in my life,” she says, “but I saw a circuit board and I just went nuts because being an artist, it was like, ‘Oh my God, this is so gorgeous. You could make jewelry out of this.’ That’s the first thing I thought.”
The Arems’ geekery line was born. “This was before there was a green movement,” says Joel.
To say that Debby began by staring at the proverbial blank slate would be an understatement. Practically no one was turning recycled computer parts into art in the early ‘90s, and the learning curve for dealing with these sometimes toxic materials was steep. Debby explored it all, from where to source materials to how to work with them. Joel was right there by her side.
The Arems’ first problem was the boards. They couldn’t use componentladen PCBs. The solder used to attach things like chips and resistors is sharp and the fiberglass can’t be cut. “Once the boards are stuffed, they’re useless for jewelry or anything else you want to do with them,” says Joel, “so we really didn’t do much of anything for two years until we discovered a local company that made prototype boards.” After designing the prototype, which could come in any size, shape or color, the company would eventually dispose of these “naked boards.” The Arems snapped them up.
Even though Debby now found herself switching to computer bits, she didn’t turn off to beads. In fact, she married her vintage beads and metal with tech parts to turn what might have been upcycled craft into art.
The Arems launched Three-Ring Circuits when Debby contacted the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, and the museum’s shop was interested. They were soon selling in the Boston Computer Museum, Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry and boutiques across the U.S., Canada and Europe.
Later, the Arems displayed the Three- Ring Circuits line at a 1992 Audubon Holiday Craft Show and were astounded when their 16-by-12 inch clipboards sold out on the first day. Joel remembers running home that first day and staying up half the night, just to restock. And the next day? Well, they just sold out again!
Their geekery line of products grew— jewelry, pencil boxes, mobiles, mirrors, bookmarks, fan pulls, key chains, pillboxes, magnets, contact cases and more. They even create beautiful menorahs that, remarkably, use spent bullet shells as candle holders.
“It all starts with, ‘What do you do with a board this shape?’” says Joel.
“It’s never-ending,” says Debby, “when I think of things we can do.”
“We’ve tried everything,” echoes Joel.
Twenty years later, Three-Ring Circuits are sold mostly on the Internet through Etsy, ArtFire and DaWanda, and other artists have joined Debby in her geekery creations. But Debby’s organic hi-tech designs worked with vintage beads and metal continue to distinguish her.
“There have been other companies who make jewelry and other stuff out of circuit boards, but nobody does design and handmade and crafted. … They’ll just take a transistor and hang it on an earring,” says Joel. “Our stuff is made with the boards and inner layers as the foundation, and then we embellish with all these other components. So you have essentially wearable art.”
Debby recently launched a new website, one that unites her six Internet shops and beautifully represents her eco-technic art. On her new homepage, computer circuitry branches and layers into a tapestry of trees.
Debby found Web designer and jewelry artisan Simone Howard, who lives in Cowra, New South Wales, Australia, through Etsy. She wanted someone who was a Web designer and artist. “The Internet is just incredible. A perfect example is finding Simone. The world is like ‘this’ now,” Debby draws her thumb and forefinger together.
The Internet has also freed Debby to concentrate more on her art. Instead of traveling to shops with her creations, she sells over the Web and spends more time in her studio. “I just would rather be here and design,” she says.
Going green through the fusion of art and technology—the Arems’ geekery draws together a new world, one that’s pretty cool.
Enter the Three-Ring Circuits realm at www.debbyarem.com.
Published in the March/April 2012 issue of Montgomery Magazine.