A pioneering leatherman, Jim Ward has expressed his inventive spirit and sense of ethics in both BDSM and in the body piercing industry. He remains a valued and respected figure in both of those communities.
Jim Ward has been a leatherman for most of his adult life. Early on, he discovered the intersection of passion and pain in body piercing. The principles of earned trust and competent practice, in leather and body piercing, have exemplified Jim’s movement in both worlds.
Jim started out life in a tiny town in Oklahoma, with conservative and very devout Christian parents. He remembers standing on an old homemade trailer, gazing at a distant highway crossing the bleak landscape. He imagined following that highway, escaping toward greater adventures and opportunities. His parents were of extraordinarily modest means, and his father had to sell a treasured Model T car he had restored piece-by-piece, to pay the doctor who delivered Jim. Many years later, while they applauded Jim’s remarkable success with Gauntlet, they desperately wished he had succeeded in something much more conventional – easier to discuss after church.
He explored his artistic abilities in music, which included study at the prestigious Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. Two beautiful harps grace his home, and a decades-old iconic image of Jim shows him in a park, in full leather gear, playing a harp. He considers his music a pleasurable hobby, and he included a harp performance while making a presentation at an Association of Professional Piercers (APP) conference. He has also produced art in the form of sculpture and graphics.
While in New York City, he worked in interior design and was taught the expression “if it smells, it sells,” took classes in metalsmithing, and later was employed as a picture framer after moving to Los Angeles. The combination of his innate design skills and training with metalwork led to his earliest body piercing jewelry designs in the 1970s.
While Jim did not invent body piercing, a practice with a millennia-long history in cultures around the world, he played a crucial role in establishing body piercing as a modern profession.
When Jim began piercing, there was no jewelry designed and manufactured specifically for body piercings. Common earrings were not suitable for use in such sites as nipples. He learned of an openminded jeweler who was willing to custom-make gold rings that would work in a body piercing. The price he asked was well out of the reach of most people wanting to get pierced. Jim put together a kit that allowed him to make body piercing jewelry for a fraction of what had been quoted by the jeweler. Over the decades of Gauntlet’s operation, many jewelry designs were developed under Jim’s direction, including the use of surgical stainless steel – which was a revolutionary development when that metal first hit the body piercing market. Developing manufacturing methods using implant-grade stainless steel vastly increased the design choices for clients, and lowered jewelry costs. Many of the standard designs currently offered in the body piercing industry started with Jim.
Today, one can buy body piercing needles, extremely sharp and of excellent quality, in any desired quantity. Tools, ranging from forceps to sterilization devices are readily available. When Jim began to formulate and perfect his piercing techniques, that was certainly not the case. He used veterinary hypodermic needles, as they were of a suitable gauge. With the coupling cut off, these needles served for a number of piercings (always sterilized between customers) before eventually being discarded for being too dull. The needles were hard to get and too expensive to allow for disposal after one use. Medical surplus dealers were a source for forceps, with a lot of time and effort being necessary to dig through bins in order to find intact and stable pairs. Jim had to be very resourceful in a time when each tool and piece of jewelry required creativity.
Jim began providing body piercing services in West Hollywood in the early 1970s, out of a two-room cottage that was originally built as a rail worker’s shack. West Hollywood started out as a stop on a new rail line that extended from downtown Los Angeles to the beach, and was called Sherman. Jim’s cottage had no heating, and he found a creative solution. He fashioned a wood-burning stove using a cast-iron toilet tank. With its first use, there was a near disaster - as the metal expanded with heat, shards of porcelain were launched around the room. Eventually, reliable heat was provided. More and more men came to Jim for piercings, often knocking on his door after bar closing time. He realized that working out of his home needed to end. For his off-work comfort, and to present the service as a serious profession, a commercial space was necessary. That is when he opened the first Gauntlet studio on nearby Santa Monica Boulevard.
Jim established Gauntlet Enterprises on November 17, 1975. His was the first professional body piercing business in the Western World. Prior, body piercing was practiced by a few fetish hobbyists without consistent standards addressing safe piercing, appropriate jewelry, and sound aftercare. There was no formal training or apprenticeships. Most piercers practiced their techniques based on trial and error. Today, building on the foundation laid by Gauntlet, body piercing is a global profession. The industry includes thousands of piercers and supports trades such as jewelry manufacturers and providers of piercing needles, tools, aftercare products, and related equipment.
Over the lifespan of Gauntlet, Jim established his studios in San Francisco, New York City, Seattle, and a franchise location in Paris, France – in addition to the original location in Los Angeles. He traveled to all of the branches, in order to see for himself that his unexcelled standards were being maintained in all studios bearing the Gauntlet name.
Jim has a long history in leather. He was a member of the Rocky Mountaineers and of the New York Motorcycle Club. The company of intense men in leather has been an aspect of Jim’s life for decades. At the beginning of his body piercing career, a large majority of his customers were leathermen, most of whom enjoyed BDSM.
He has been honored with awards from prominent groups such as the Society of Janus (LHOF 2018). He was an active member of Avatar in Los Angeles during his years there. As a member of the Chicago Hellfire Club (CHC - LHOF 2014) and The 15 Association (LHOF 2022), he has shared his expertise in scenes ranging from a suspension by temporary piercings (utilizing approximately 220 needles at the CHC annual run, Inferno) and assisting in the hook pull ceremony at the 15 Association’s annual Bootcamp. He has made numerous presentations on body piercing for Threshold, the Annie Sprinkle Salon, in Human Sexuality classes at San Francisco State University, at the APP annual conference, and for the San Francisco Leathermen’s Discussion Group (LDG). He is open handed and generous in sharing the heritage and history of body piercing.
Over time, a number of media sources have focused on Jim’s position in the realm of body piercing, including Rachel Maddow. Back when she had a radio show, she interviewed Jim in relation to the passing of a long-term friend and avid customer, Louis Rove. A warm and generous man, Louis had an impressive, to say the least, collection of Gauntlet jewelry displayed on his genitals. Louis’ adopted son is the infamous politician Karl Rove, and that relationship was discussed during the interview. MTV produced a documentary segment on body piercing, and termed Jim the “granddaddy” of the profession. Who remembers the Jerry Springer Show? Their producers contacted Jim to appear. They lost interest when he insisted on assurances that the body piercing profession would be treated seriously, and not as a “freak show” subject.
Though Jim’s customer base began as nearly exclusively gay leathermen, he welcomed a vast spectrum of people as they learned of the joys of well-performed body piercings. In the early 1990s, there was a phenomenal growth in the body piercing market. Jim’s open acceptance of people from a wide variety of backgrounds was reflected in the makeup of the Gauntlet staff. He welcomed anyone qualified to do the work. People of a range of genders, gender identities, sexualities, cultures, and ancestries, all contributed to Gauntlet’s success as well as its welcoming and inclusive environment.
During the height of the AIDS epidemic, Jim insured that the best practices were applied at Gauntlet to assure the safety of both the piercers and clients. Often, a medical professional getting pierced at Gauntlet would remark on the excellence of the procedures around such issues as bloodborne pathogens, and preventing needle sticks and cross-contamination. It was also made clear to staff that anyone who could not provide the same level of service to a person with AIDS as any other client was not living up to Gauntlet standards and did not belong there.
Toward the end of Gauntlet’s operation, Jim became gravely ill. He had progressed from being HIV positive to suffering full blown AIDS. This was during a time when the medical authorities were blundering through a search for effective treatments, and a multitude of Jim’s friends and peers died. Seeing what conventional medicine was doing, he traveled to Mexico and Switzerland in the hope that alternative methods would work for him. He also spent a huge amount of time and money on a local practitioner who did more harm than good. Eventually, the “cocktail” of drugs addressing the virus was available, and Jim saw that it was his chance to survive. Decades later, having celebrated his 80th birthday, Jim’s health challenges are managed, and what one might anticipate in his stage of life.
Foundational principles of Gauntlet included safety, innovation, and respect. Nothing was more important to Jim than ensuring the safety of his staff and clients. Innovation continued throughout Gauntlet’s time, from Jim’s first body-piercing-specific jewelry designs – many of which continue to be industry standards, to frequently updated aftercare suggestions, and piercing procedures making a wider range of piercing placements available.
Despite constant innovation, Gauntlet was sometimes termed conservative. Some newcomers were eager to try never before attempted piercings, often with unpleasant results. Piercing one’s uvula was not a practical success, and a well-known actor inquired about having a hemorrhoid pierced. While always open to new and exciting body piercings, safety and long-term success for the client were the paramount concerns.
Under Jim’s leadership, Gauntlet clients found their motivations for getting a body piercing respected, whether to mark a life change, as a spiritual rite of passage, or simply because they thought the piercing was hot and sexy. Jim imparted his high standards to Gauntlet’s staff insuring integrity, honesty, exceptional “bedside manner,” and a constant pursuit of improvements and innovations. In sharing his skills and experience, Jim provided an intense and exacting apprenticeship for all who learned body piercing under his keen eye. His were the first formal apprenticeships in body piercing.
Jim is a deeply spiritual man, and during his life he has explored a number of traditions. In a video, he is shown participating in a reenactment of a Native American rite, suspended by temporary piercings in his chest. He has participated in a number of mainstream and more unique enlightenment-seeking systems, including Primal Scream. He has always held that spiritual practice is a very private and personal matter, to be respected.
In Gauntlet Jim maintained a deep commitment to his foundational principles of openness, community building, maintaining the highest possible safety standards, and respecting Gauntlet’s clients. He shared the most up-to-date techniques in Piercing Fans International Quarterly (PFIQ) as well as a series of Pierce With A Pro videos. PFIQ and a “pin pals” insert were born from the constant stream of requests for information on body piercing that he received. Piercing fans were able to contact one another, and read in PFIQ about history, the latest techniques, and notable individuals in the community. There was a point when the popularity of body piercing exploded in the 1990’s, and many entrepreneurs got into the business. Rather than keeping Gauntlet’s state-of- the-art knowledge a closely guarded secret, Jim established training seminars to share those techniques. He knew that more competition was inevitable, and he wanted as much of it as possible to be safe and competent.
Jim, ably assisted by Michaela Grey, was essential in the launching of the Association of Professional Piercers (APP). The first official meeting is recognized as taking place in his Gauntlet office. More than 25 years later, the APP is an international organization with nearly one thousand professional members from countries throughout North, Central, and South America, Europe, Asia, and Australia, dedicated to the highest standards of the industry, and an invaluable resource for clients seeking trustworthy professionals (www.safepiercing.org).
He had learned of legislators in various locales across the country contemplating laws to outright ban body piercing. Stories of piercings gone wrong, due to unskilled or unethical piercers, led to that simplistic approach – just prohibit the practice. It was pointed out to legislators that outlawing the activity would only stop competent and ethical professional piercers, and that the ones causing concern would ignore such a prohibition. Building off the freely contributed Gauntlet procedure manual, the APP developed an Environmental Health and Safety Manual, which continues to be updated and relevant, utilized by national and international governmental agencies. Legislating basic common sense standards allowed the body piercing profession to grow and gain well-deserved respect.
Today, there are APP-like organizations in many countries around the world, and the principles Jim compiled in the “Piercee's Bill of Rights” play a crucial part in their practices. Jim was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by the APP, and remains vitally involved.
Jim has been married to his husband/Sir, Drew, since 2013. They have been a D/s couple for 33 years. Drew saw Jim’s photo in a Drummer Magazine interview in the late 1980s. He recounts feeling like his entire universe tilted at this point. Hearing at various times in his life that there is “one particular person out there for you,” he was certain that for him, it was Jim.
He gathered his resources, flew to Los Angeles, and went to Gauntlet to have his nipples pierced. Two problems surfaced with his plan. Drew did not check to be sure that Jim himself would be doing his piercings (as it turned out, Jim had gone to San Francisco for that weekend, where Drew lived) and secondly, Drew did not know what a consummate professional Jim is. This was not a way to meet “The Jim Ward” and possibly initiate a relationship. After seeking out ways to cross paths with Jim over several months, Drew finally got his first date with Jim as a result of hanging out at a piercing clinic all day long. Jim was piercing people at a leather shop around the corner from Drew’s apartment and suggested going to a nearby restaurant for dinner – where a discount was offered to customers arriving in full leather gear. Drew was elated, and the date was a wonder – despite Drew throwing his back out in the process of hastily pulling on his Dehners. Jim and Drew shared many intimacies that night, and it laid a solid foundation on which to build a lasting, committed relationship.
At Gauntlet, Jim was Drew’s boss, boy, and father. (Jim legally adopted Drew when that was the only way to have a legally recognized relationship prior to the availability of domestic partnership and marriage). That combination of relationships required focus and flexibility to successfully shift according to context. Their household includes Jim’s brother boy, Eric See, collared for eleven years (as well as a beloved 12-year-old rescue canine mutt, Sparky).
Humility is a hallmark of Jim’s personality, and this endears him to many who are more accustomed to experiencing prominent egos in individuals who have made major contributions during their lives. Jim is a warm-hearted, self-effacing man. Occasions of major recognition, such as his induction into the Leather Hall of Fame, elicit surprise in him, in addition to gratitude for the kindness and respect inherent in such an honor.
With special thanks to Elayne Angel & Paul King
For inquiring minds....
Jim Ward, Running the Gauntlet. An Intimate History of the Modern Body Piercing Industry, Gauntlet Enterprises, 2011.