Making Chain Maille Jewelry: 8 Great Jump Ring Tips and an Epiphany

I'm (probably) no longer going to complain about how challenged I am when it comes to making chain maille jewelry. I've had an epiphany.

 
The inspiration necklace.
Photo: ABC Family.

I was watching one of my guilty-pleasure ("teeny bopper" as Mama says) television shows the other night and one of the girls on the show was wearing a necklace that caught my eye. The necklace looked like large metal rings interlocked into a necklace . . . kind of like really big jump rings in a chain maille weave. Hmm. . . .

Maybe it's because I knew chain maille was looming scheduled on my calendar this week, but when I saw that necklace, I had an epiphany. A BIG chain maille jewelry-making epiphany.

 
Giant jump rings in progress on a glue-stick mandrel.

I ran to my studio, found the biggest wire I could find, which turned out to be 1.6mm (that's about 14g AWG) soft aluminum armature wire, and then looked around for something to use as a mandrel. Butane canister, too big. Paint marker, too small. Glue stick–just right. I wrapped the wire into a coil around the glue stick, grabbed my saw, and cut the wire off into really big, really easy-to-use jump rings. AHA!

You know how children are given oversized versions of things–really big crayons, utensils with big handles, bikes with big wheels–to help their little hands and minds master the use of those things? This was just like that. Plus I'm intrigued by micro/macro swapping, making normally large things really small or making normally small things really large. This was definitely an experiment in the latter!

Next I grabbed Karen Karon's new book Chain Maille Jewelry Workshop to find a weave to try out my jumbo jump rings. The book is packed with seven different weaves and several variations on each, all resulting in spectacular chain maille jewelry projects. While I was looking for the weave to try with my huge jump rings, I found several great tips for making chain maille jewelry and buying/making/working with jump rings. Here are a few of the highlights:

1. Be sure to buy only saw-cut jump rings, because they have the flush-cut edges needed for perfect closures. If you make your own jump rings, saw them apart rather than using wire cutters, unless you're mindful to properly use flush cutters, every time.

2. Karen recommends beginners use aluminum jump rings when practicing a new weave or technique, because they're inexpensive, which relieves some of the pressure and frees you up to experiment. (And they're perfect for making huge jump rings if you're chain-maille challenged like me!)

3. You know jump rings have an OD (outer diameter) and an ID (inner diameter). Because chain maille is made by linking jump rings through the inside of other jump rings, the ID is the most important measurement and the one to pay attention to when you're shopping for jump rings for chain maille projects.

4. There are two different wire-scale measurement systems, the AWG (American Wire Gauge) and the SWG (British or Standard Wire Gauge). When you're buying jump rings and following a chain maille tutorial instructions, make sure that you're following the proper wire-scale gauge. My 1.6mm armature wire measures about 14g in the AWG, but it's 16g according to the SWG. (There's a wire-scale gauge comparison chart in Karen's book.)

5. Karen points out that the AWG is usually used for jump rings in precious metals from U.S. jewelry suppliers but the SWG is often used for non-precious metal jump rings and by overseas vendors. If the info isn't readily available, you'll have to know the diameter of the wire the jump rings are made of in order to know its true gauge. This is a good reason to order all of your jump rings for a project from one source–it could ruin your project if you mix different gauges unknowingly.

6. Store jump rings labeled with the gauge, ID, metal AND manufacturer information. Then you'll know where to order more to match when your stash gets low.

7. When you make your own jump rings, one mandrel won't necessarily produce the same size jump rings in different metals. When the coiled wire is released, it loosens in what is known as springback. The tension in the metal, determined by the type of metal it is, determines how much springback the metal has. Stiffer metals have more spring, which will produce jump rings with an ID slightly larger than the mandrel. This is important to keep in mind if you intend to mix metals in a project or if you want to make jump rings with an exact ID.

8. If you work with wire and jump rings, you probably know that wire work hardens as you use it. You also probably know that you open a jump ring by separating the ends north and south, not apart east and west. What you might not know is how far is too far–how many times can you open and close a jump ring, hardening and stiffening along the way, until it gets too brittle and breaks. Karen recommends we "sacrifice a jump ring or two to the chain maille gods" in order to know how much is too much. Open and close a jump ring repeatedly, noting how the tension and resistance builds as you go. Keep going until it breaks so you'll know how it feels when it's at the breaking point and when it's time to stop in the future.

 
Proof!

Hopefully, you're thinking, "But what about the ginormous jump-ring experiment?" It took me five tries, but eventually I made a Byzantine weave unit. Yes, me of little (chain maille) faith, I did it! I think I had it on my third or fourth try, but I wasn't pulling enough tension in the finished piece to make it snap to position. Once I figured that out, I held the finished unit in position with tension while I added smaller jump rings and chain on each side, creating a necklace. I love how one little weave unit becomes geometric wire art, just by enlarging the scale.

 

Get your copy of Karen's new book, Chain Maille Jewelry Workshop, and have your own chain maille epiphany for making gorgeous classic jewelry using ancient techniques. It's available as a print book, instantly downloadable eBook, or in a bargain bundle of both!

 

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