Vintage Modern: How Jewelry Chain is Made
Any jewelry designer worth his or her salt has a favorite source for jewelry chain. There’s something special about chain that suits your design perfectly, drapes well, and feels good to wear. But, have you ever thought about how chain is made? It’s an intricate process that has stayed pretty much the same for the last century.
Second-generation chain maker David Gariepy, owner of Garlan Chain, says, “The industry is so old that anything that could have been made has been made. The chain we make now is a variation of those original vintage jewelry chain styles. The innovation is in the variety of wire diameters, the metals we use, and the finishing.”
David remembers when his father would acquire vintage machines to make chain in their family’s old cow barn. The machines made six styles of chain, and his dad stayed busy keeping the machines working. Now, they have more than 400 machines running around the clock making 13 styles of chain with over 1,500 variations in a solar-powered building in North Attleboro, Massachusetts.
The company has grown, but it’s still rooted in the tradition of American jewelry chain making. A chain maker must be both toolmaker and chain mechanic –and an apprenticeship typically lasts six years. David says, “When you’re working with machines that are this old, there are no parts to repair them, so we have to make our own.” Dave estimates that some of Garlan Chain’s machines are at least 80 years old. The older machines are his favorites, because their simplified designs make them easier to fix than newer models.
How Jewelry Chain is Made 101
All jewelry chain starts out as wire. First, the wire is annealed in a furnace and then drawn through a die to make it the desired diameter. The drawing process also work-hardens the wire and makes it stronger. Then, the wire goes into a forming machine where it is threaded through the previous link, then cut and formed into the next link on the chain. The chain cascades downward from the forming machine into a cup or bucket. It’s stored “oily” to prevent rust until it’s ready for finishing.
David says, “I like the fact that we start with nothing and turn it into something people will wear and keep for a long time. It’s cool to start with a coil of wire and every bit of it is manipulated on a tool that we also made from a hunk of steel. I also love seeing when a designer creates something really special. That start to finish is just awesome.”
Contemporary chain styles are based on the same jewelry chains that have been made since the industry’s beginning. David says, “Curb and cable chains are standards that are always popular. Wheat chain is a style that comes and goes depending on fashion. Rollo – or Belcher – chain is a ‘trend’ chain that’s on the rise.”
When you’re looking for the perfect chain for your pendant, making your own chain tassels, or you want to layer necklaces and bracelets this summer, remember that even the most modern looking jewelry chain is part of a long-standing tradition. Cue “The Chain” by Fleetwood Mac and get your vintage modern style on!
Interim Managing Editor of Beadwork