40 Years Earlier
Our story began during my first year of medical school with an idea that turned into a dream. That dream turned into a business. Then the business turned back into a dream. I have continued to believe in that dream for the past 40 years.
Below is the story of how that dream became reality on January 26, 2022, which is also my late brother Barry's birthday. He died prematurely of Covid five months earlier. My brother, Barry Wagner D.O., personified the spirit of a healer and what my jewelry represents. He was the best doctor I have ever known, and was a practicing Emergency physician for 40 years.
My Story Of Developing A Line Of Jewelry For Doctors
Using The Symbols Of Medicine:
The Caduceus & The Staff Of Asclepius
The year was 1982 and I had just started my first year of medical school in Memphis, Tennessee. For several months, I had been in search of a pendant that represented what I was there to learn - I was there to learn how to be a good doctor and how to practice the art of medicine. The hours were grueling and I was giving it my absolute best. Although the days were long, the topics we studied were absolutely fascinating, and it seemed I always wanted to learn just a little bit more. No longer was I having to learn rarely useful information like calculus. On many days it felt like I was floundering in an ocean of ignorance, but most of the time I was basking in a sea of knowledge and absorbing all of which I was capable.
For many years, I had been anticipating what it would be like to become a doctor and to take care of sick and injured patients - and that time had finally arrived. I was a bona fide medical student, and had become one of the hundreds of other students who were part of the medical "machine" that would guide our journey along the path necessary to learn the art and science of medicine. I studied religiously in order to acquire the knowledge necessary to take care of people, and looked forward to the day I would be able to practice medicine. The enormous volume of data we were required to learn was astonishing, but this and other challenges were irrelevant because the stakes were so high. I knew that one day people's lives would be in my hands. Medical school was extremely difficult, but I knew it would be worth it because I was on my way to becoming a doctor. During those years, both fear and determination pushed me to the limits of my ability, and it often felt like my ignorance had no bounds, but an insatiable desire to learn made it fun... so I drank freely from the deep well of medical knowledge.
Although it is difficult to describe, I felt an ancient connection with countless other students and doctors, who before me, had also traveled along the same path necessary to become a medicine man. I also thought then (and still do today) that the students of medicine over 2,000 years ago, back during the times of Hippocrates and Galen, also likely had similar feelings about being a doctor. I felt lucky and privileged to be part of society's most respected professions, and I wanted a symbol that represented a medicine man and the art of medicine. I wanted a pendant to wear around my neck that represented both what I did as a profession, and who I was as a person. I wanted a piece of medical symbol jewelry that reflected my identity.
"Can you make me one of these?" I asked my dental student friend as I handed him a sketch of a snake wrapped around a staff that I had drawn earlier. "It's the Staff of Asclepius. Asclepius was the Greek god of medicine 2,500 years ago," I told him. He looked at the drawing, paused, then said, "Piece of cake," as he folded the paper and stuck it in his pocket. One week later he handed me this...
I proudly wore that first Staff of Asclepius (also spelled Aesculapius or Asklepios). I was also impressed by the number of other medical students and doctors that were interested in my symbol of medicine. For this reason, and perhaps the fact that I could not find a high-quality artistically designed pendant, I decided to create and market my original line of medical symbol jewelry featuring the Staff of Asclepius. I also needed another example of the medical symbol jewelry, so I gave my dental student friend a 14K gold ring to melt down and use for the next pendant. And this is what he made...
I showed the pendants to my father, and also to my brother Barry, who was an Emergency Medicine physician. I told them about how the Staff of Asclepius, the Caduceus, and other medical symbol jewelry, could not be found in jewelry stores. I told them about how the Staff of Asclepius and the Aesclepius Rod represented the practice and art of medicine. I also told them about how the ancient symbol of a serpent wrapped around a staff or stick, the Staff of Asclepius, represented the way medical students and doctors have felt about being a doctor for thousands of years.
For most, if not all of the students of medicine, becoming a doctor is a dream they have to pursue for a large portion of their lives. The Staff of Asclepius represents that dream, and reflects what many have felt as their primary purpose in life.
After listening to my ideas about the significance of this medical symbol, and the likely demand for jewelry that signified the practice of medicine, my father and brother also thought it was a good idea. So, together we formed a company named Jim-Bar Corporation, Inc. to develop, produce and market a line of jewelry as gifts for doctors and gifts for medical students using the Staff of Aesculapius (aka Asklepios) and the Caduceus.
My father had a friend, a retired jeweler, that was also interested in my concept, and whom we decided would be in charge of the production of our line of medical symbol jewelry. We hired a designer in New Orleans to make our molds and soon had a line of fine jewelry for doctors made from solid 14K gold. After we developed a sales booklet, which we thought would be excellent gifts for doctors, we were ready to do business.
I was a medical student at the University of Tennessee Center for the Health Sciences, which is located in Memphis, Tennessee. The newspaper for Memphis has always been the Commercial Appeal, so our initial press release included me on the front page of the business section.
Following graduation from medical school, I began an Internal Medicine residency in Chattanooga, TN, and had to separate myself from the business for the next three years. The company continued with attempting to market the line of fine jewelry, but due to the company being undercapitalized, among other factors, it was not able to maintain business operations and eventually closed.
However, my dream did not die. Since that time, I have always believed that there are many medical students and doctors, like myself, who would love to own a piece of jewelry that uses an ancient symbol to represent their practice of medicine. They would cherish this treasure and hopefully enjoy it for many years. Then they would pass it on as an heirloom, that would be around long after they are gone - just like those who practiced before them.
When I reached the age of 40, I was distracted by a business opportunity and left the practice of medicine. But for the next 10 years, something was always missing, and it felt as if my purpose in life was not being fulfilled. I frequently dreamed of medicine and occasionally thought about going back into medicine.
Around the age of 50, I decided I was going to resolve the conflict that had been haunting me, and that was what to do with the rest of my life. I decided I was going to read Harrison’s Textbook Of Medicine: a thick 3,000-page medical text that many physicians consider the “Bible” of medicine. My plan was to read that book, and then make a decision to either bury my beast of medicine forever, or go back into medicine.
My decision was made by the time I had read only 4 or 5 chapters. Ingesting the knowledge from that book made me feel whole again. Having the ability to understand the knowledge written on those pages made me realize that not only did I want to go back into medicine, but that I had an obligation to spend the rest of my days on earth doing what I did best. And that was the practice of medicine.
So, at the age of 50, I went back into medicine, and became a 50-year-old Intern in an Emergency Medicine Residency in Chattanooga, Tennessee. It was the most exciting and rewarding experience I have had thus far. My residency flew by, and when finished, I still wanted more training, so I began an Emergency Ultrasound Fellowship at Yale.
After the Fellowship, I enrolled in a jewelry-making making class for a hobby at The American School of Jewelry. There I discovered that I loved to carve medical symbol jewelry (e.g. the Staff of Asclepius) out of wax. In this class, I would carve a design for a piece of jewelry, then my teacher, Eddie, would make a mold from the wax carving, and cast the jewelry into solid 14K gold or silver. It was fascinating and I absolutely loved carving wax to bring out various new designs of the Staff of Asclepius.
Although it took several years, with much trial and error, I finally learned how to carve my beloved Staff of Asclepius into precise, accurate, original designs. I also learned how to craft different types of jewelry, and create fine intricately designed pieces that are far superior to the original models.
My idea that originated almost four decades ago, when I was a fledgling medical student, still persists today. Founded on the concept that this jewelry represents more than just an accessory, the Staff of Asclepius collection is designed to be an extension of one’s persona: an ode to the self-sacrifice and self-belief necessary to become a healer and to spend a rewarding and purposeful life taking care of others.
My idea is that many people in the medical profession would like to own a unique heirloom that represents what they did with their life. I also think that family and friends of medical professionals would like the opportunity to give their loved ones a piece of jewelry that holds so much significance. These are special gifts for doctors, medical student graduation gifts, gifts for nurses, and gifts for nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and any other healthcare professional.
When we started the company, direct mail, journal ads, and trade shows were the primary methods available for us to market to medical professionals. Today, we have a tool at our disposal that was not available in 1985, and that is the internet. I can finally put my designs in front of people that I think will appreciate the detail in the artistic designs, as well as the significance of the symbol.
This symbolic medical jewelry is as significant today as it was 2,000 years ago. It represents being a medical professional that has endured what it takes to become proficient enough to heal the sick, save lives, and comfort those patients and family members in need. I also believe that there are many nurses, EMTs, dentists, and other medical care providers that have made tremendous sacrifices to achieve their goals, and have done what is necessary to become professional at doing what they do best; and that is taking care of people who are ill or injured.
I hope I have conveyed what this jewelry meant to me when I wore it proudly as a medical student, and what it still means to me as I wear it today, almost 40 years later. In addition, I hope that you also find the significance, and enjoy the gratification, that I have experienced wearing this symbolic representation of a healer.
James L. Wagner MD