Chain Making

Chain Making

by Ms Nandita Ray

As with all jewelry, chain making is not a simple process. It too involves a number of stages and it’s a long way from the raw material to the final finished product. Invention of the wire helped the goldsmiths to craft chains from gold and its alloys. Neolithic men found gold very pliant, soft and supple and they hammered and pounded it to take any form and shape and also stretch its length. Perhaps this was the birth of chain and chain making. Till the 18th century chain was handcrafted, laborious and time consuming. It still is. By twisting and turning the wire different shapes are formed and linking one link with the other forms the most basic chain.

Rousseau’s famous statement, “man is born free but everywhere he is in chains” is apt today, literally speaking! Chains around necks, around wrists, around waists on boots dangling from hip pockets, it has inundated the world of fashion. From bikers, to muscleman to fashion models sport chains, queen size to princess length, flashing and clanging all over. Chains form the core of jewelry dressing adding flavor and spice to the attire worn.

History of Chain Making

As with all jewelry, chain making is not a simple process. It too involves a number of stages and it’s a long way from the raw material to the final finished product. Invention of the wire helped the goldsmiths to craft chains from gold and its alloys. Neolithic men found gold very pliant, soft and supple and they hammered and pounded it to take any form and shape and also stretch its length. Perhaps this was the birth of chain and chain making. Till the 18th century chain was handcrafted, laborious and time consuming. It still is. By twisting and turning the wire different shapes are formed and linking one link with the other forms the most basic chain. Romans and Persians were adept at chain making. They used chains on bridles of horses, on vests for protection in war, on doors, in anchors and jewelry; chain making was a well practiced art. The wires were made into loops and connected to each other to form chains which were used to especially on armor. The loops were sown on vests worn by soldiers. Chains constructed in this fashion with interlocking links are called chain maille /mail or chain armor. This was the common term used in the medieval times to indicate flat chains.

Before machines took over, goldsmiths used to hand make most chains.
They would hammer the metal, gold or silver into flat strips. Then they would draw or pull these strips of metal through a number of dies to form wires. The wire which was reduced to the diameter or thickness required. The wire was then wound around a mandrel forming loops. Mandrel is used to shape metal into a desired size or shape by using a tiny hammer. Then it was cut through the looped wire. Then they would interlock the loops; bend each link to close it.
Then use heat to solder each joint. And this process was continued till the desired length is completed.

Such chains and many even today, are handcrafted. Hand fabrication is indispensable in any form of jewelry making. Delicate touches, mounting difficult settings or attaching beads need skilled fingers. Therefore hand crafting cannot be totally discontinued. However demand requires mass production. Mechanization was the obvious answer and this led Jacques de Vaucanson, a French man in 1750, to invent a machine which made U shaped wire for mesh chain. This progressed into a chain making machine in 1782. Pedaling generated power and this machine was highly sought by goldsmiths and craftsmen. By the 1800’s different types of chain making machines were designed, all based on this basic model. In 1870, this method of chain making caught the eyes of Europeans and Americans. In 1893 in Chicago World Exposition, Americans for the first time exhibited their model of chain making machine which was decidedly better. It was based on better technology, possessed speed and was sophisticated. During the sixties Italians became and still remain masters of chain making and chain making machines.

Chain making machines

There are two main types of chain making machines. The cable machine and the curb chain making machine.

Cable machine Process

The first step is to feed/introduce wire into a set of straightening rollers.  It then passes into a guide and a gripper section.This chamber guides it into a chamber called ‘stop’. In this section the wire length is measured and the size of the link established. This is the first link of the chain. The next pierce of wire is measured and is passed through this first link to form a part of the chain. In this way links are measured and made and interlocked.  A cutter cuts the wire from the feed stock a forming tooth slides out and pushes on the wire to shape it into a U. After the U is formed, a set of jaw like clamps holds the wire in place and closes the link to complete the shape. The link is given a complete 90 degrees turnabout and the next link making process starts.

Curb Making Machine

At first the wire is introduced into a loop like tool. Ii is twisted and coiled into a spiral. As the loop revolves the spiral wire is put through the previous loop.
The loop is closed and a set of jaw like scissors snap and cuts off the spiral. This link is rotated and the next spiral is made and this process continues till the desired length is acquired.

Snake Chain Making Machine

This machine makes chains from flat stock.

Ball Chain Making Machine

This machine is capable of making ball chains from both wire and flat stock.

Firago Chain Machine

This machine is able to make two sizes of link since it has two heads.

Platinum Chain making

Platinum chain making was not easy since it is a hard metal which is not easy to work with. For many years only pliant metals like gold, silver, copper were made into chains. To full fill the need for white metal was filled with white gold, rhodium plating or silver. During the nineties, the demand for high end products like platinum was greatly desired and hence manufacturers started finding ways to make platinum chains. Some started plating the wire with copper to make it greasy and slippery as it passed through the machine. This was done so as not to hurt the tools. After this the copper was laboriously stripped off the wire. It was time consuming and not very profitable. So some manufacturers started chrome plating their tooling system. Today, improved grades of carbide has eased the problems not cured it completely. Soldering the links is another problem. Heat damages the color and matching the color is difficult. It also gets tarnished. A number of methods were used to resolve the problem. The coming of the laser welding machine is a boon. It is a clean weld as it is suited for the thermal grade of the platinum.
Some chains are hand made. Glass beads, plastic and resin beads are strung by hand. Pearls are also (mostly) hand strung. Bead made from organic material like wood, shell, bones, clay even fake ivory are also hand fabricated. Some chains made from gold are also hand fabricated.

Problems encountered

Though machines do the elementary work the finished product has to be hand done.The finished product is the result of skilled fingers and toiling hands as they decorate, set and polish the chain to its final finished stage. Heat and soldering required for completing the final product.

Some chain designs like herring bone require a flattened profile and this has to be done by rolling the chain on a rolling mill.

Secondary operations are needed to make the chain loose and flexible in order to sit properly around the neck.

Decorations like diamond cut are added by using a special machine.

Tools will wear and tear.

Machines are expensive to maintain in tip top condition.

Some parts might not be easily available, especially if it’s of an older machine.

It turns out to be expensive unless used for mass production.

Benefits of Chain making Machines

Chains can be massed produced. Variety of designs can be made.Complex chains can be made from stamped components which are bent and then interlocked.

It allows the making of thin and light hollow chains.

Chains can be made in all karats of gold.

It saves time as a number of chains can be made quickly and accurately.

It is labor and cost effective.

In up to date modern machines, which are very expensive, links are automatically welded by laser or micro plasma welding torch.

Wires can be round, oval or square and can be used in machines with ease.

Length of chains

Chains can be made to order in the length one desires. However there are two acceptable lengths of chains, the Princess length which is 18″ long and the Rope length which is 45″ or 120″ long. A number of contemporary lengths are available; 15″, 20″, 25″ etc. Chains are also sold by foot or by spool. This system is useful for mass production.

Types of chains

Variety of designs run riot in the fashion world of chains. Broad, thin, light, heavy, ornamental, simple, intricate, Princess or Rope, flat or cylindrical, lots of styles and motifs abound. Here are some contemporary styles:Box chain: – a chain with box like wide squares.
Byzantine chain: –a type of weave which is an old world style and is a chain with round links which create an intricate design that forms a tube. This design is also called birdcage design, idiot box and fool’s dilemma.
Cable chain: – a chain with round links all of the same size.
Curb chain: – a chain with oval links that are twisted to lie flat.
Figaro chain: – a pretty popular design that has two or three small round links with and long oval link. This is a famous Italian design.
Herringbone chain: – a chain with resembles fish bones being thin, small and slanting links that lie flat. Also resembles a centipede.
Fob chain: – a thick chain with an ornamental pendant or seal or charm attached to it.
Mesh: – thin, delicate, gauzy looking mesh woven from very fine wire, resembling a fabric, like chain.
Omega: – a chain that lies flat and is solid and heavy and the surface made up of thick links.
Multilayered chain: – a number of thin delicate, soft and pliant chains all strung from two clasps form a thick layered look.

These are some of the common styles of chains available and in no way does this write up sum up the gamut of designs available internationally.

Use chains as adornment. Dress up your purse with a dangling bead chain or have a pearl or silver chain protecting your sunglasses or adding color to your attire. Key chain, wallet chain, jacket chain, boot chain, chain swinging from ear lobes, finger rings with chains, bracelets with chains. Chains can be used easily. Be innovative. Chain up or shackle up. Start a chain reaction.

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