Copper in the Arts

December 2010

Debby & Joel Arem: Three Ring Circuits

By Ashley Morris

Circuit board keychain on round brass disk. Circuit board keychain on round brass disk.

Photograph courtesy of Debby Arem

Debby and Joel Arem discovered a computer's motherboard to be the mother lode of their widely popular line of wearable geekery - all made from intricate circuit boards made of copper.

Just as a gemstone has many facets, so are the woven inner workings of the couple's story of development of Three Ring Circuits since 1991. Joel, who has a B.A. and master's degree in geology from Harvard and a Ph.D. in mineralogy, always had a thing for cutting gems, which evolved into an involved interest in metalwork, casting and soldering. In 1979, he married Debby, who received a B.A. in fine arts from American University and, says Joel, is a "genius with color and pattern."

Her artistic specialization began as silk screening, but grew into beaded necklace design, which allowed Debby the chance to combine colors, textures and antique Chinese pieces she unearthed on her travels. The Beadles line of jewelry (featured in Bloomingdale's and Saks Fifth Avenue) was born in the early 1980s.

After another business venture took Joel into PC production and sales, another door opened. When the PC business folded, Debby discovered just how geometrically artistic the PCB (printed circuit board) components inside a computer could be, and the idea for Three Ring Circuits was born.

These intricate circuit boards are composed of extremely strong fiberglass that's lightweight and paper thin, connected through copper.

"A vapor process then deposits the copper onto the board, so it's a layer of fiberglass with a copper circuit on top and bottom, then another layer up to 12 layers or as many as 30 layers," says Joel. "Fiberglass and layers are then welded together with pressure and heat and the result is the printed circuit board, which could still be only 1/8 inch thick."

Reclaimed copper and circuit board snail pin.Reclaimed copper and circuit board snail pin.

Photograph courtesy of Debby Arem

Three Ring Circuits uses recycled prototype circuit boards from a company that would have normally tossed them in a landfill in the early 1990s. "But we said, 'We'll take them!'" says Joel "We were able to acquire from this company a huge inventory of these surplus boards because they were prototyping all sorts of shapes and sizes - blue, red, green …"

Joel says the couple began with designing earrings, using special tools to cut through the indestructible material, soldering metal hardware onto the fiberglass, sometimes shading the fiberglass with different colors. He then began discovering other items to make with the transparent material laden with cool copper circuitry, like pencil boxes, rulers, coasters, candle holders and clipboards. Joel even stripped the inner layer and laminated it, which resulted in bookmarks.

"The film, which is thicker than photo film with incredible circuitry, I cut up and make sun catchers," he says. "Nothing goes to waste."

The Maryland couple, who are also big into animal rescue, doesn't waste any precious time either, creating new products nearly 12 hours a day. "Debby always says that she has never been more fulfilled creatively, and it's an artistic outlet for me," says Joe. "When I sell a pencil box, I know that I made that."


Three Ring Circuits, Joel and Debby Arem, Gaithersburg, MD

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