• 04.02.10

Uncommon Act of Design: The Gem Paperclip

Why the common paperclip is the perfect symbol of capitalism.


Your standard paperclip has a design so perfect and so simple that it seems inevitable–and obvious. It wasn’t. The Gem paperclip is actually the last clip standing in a war over paper clip design that lasted decades.


Grids points to this lovely paper clip gallery created by the Office Museum showing just how many competing designs once existed. And it illustrates why all of those eventually died out.

The first paper clip was invented in 1867, and it piggy backed upon the invention of thin-gauge steel wire and the machinery to bend it in mass quantities. But getting the design right was a complicated challenge. Consider: A good clip couldn’t catch or mutilate papers, had to hold lots of papers securely, be thin (so it wouldn’t bulk up files), easily inserted, light weight (requiring little extra postage), cheap (using as little wire as possible), and tough for re-use. With that in mind, compare the Gem clip above to all these also-rans:


Each of them fails one of the criteria above; almost all are either pokey or over-complicated (and materials intensive); and they’ve all come and gone, as the market has gradually recognized all of their short comings. No joke: Like some hairless ape elevated by years of Darwinian selection, the Gem remains standing because no other solution is nearly as good. If you’re looking for the perfect symbol of market capitalism, the Gem clip might be it.

[Top image by Sea Frost]

About the author

Cliff is director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.