Chain Maille Jewelry Design: It’s All About the Unit

Whoooo’s a Chain Maille Fan?

What do jewelry making, painting, glass fusing, and molecular biology have in common? The question really should be not “what” but “who,” because the answer is chain maille champion, artist, and instructor Michelle Brennan.

Like many jewelry makers and craft artisans, Michelle has explored quite a few different craft media and keeps trying out new ones. Though she has settled into chain maille jewelry these days, she loves to figure out how to combine elements from other media into her chain maille jewelry designs. And like so many artisans and scientists, “figuring out” of all kinds is an essential part of what drives her in everything she takes up.

TOP: Michelle Brennan is always looking for ways to incorporate new things into her chain maille jewelry designs. LEFT TO RIGHT: Sprocket Owl pendant with bright aluminum, stainless steel, brass, and metal gears. Rainbow Glass bracelet with bright aluminum and fused glass beads. Amethyst Bar and Stainless Steel Byzantine bracelet close up. Photos courtesy of the artist.

Those Striking Amethyst Bars

Recently, I asked Michelle how she came up with the design for a striking chain maille bracelet that appears as a project in the July issue of Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist. The design features large, elongated beads of amethyst, a favorite gemstone of mine because I love its rich purple color.

Purple and lots of it in an unexpected form? Of course I love this bracelet, but that’s me. While Michelle was attracted to the color and shape of the beads, too, when it came to designing jewelry with them, she was actually focusing on the holes so she could figure out how to attach the beads into a pleasing pattern.

Chain Maille Jewelry Design: It’s All About the Unit

“I’ve been holding onto these double-drilled bars for quite a while, waiting for the right inspiration to strike on how to use them with jump rings,” she says. “I wanted to create something that made use of the two-strand aspect of the beads without making two separate and obvious strands. Using a variation of byzantine, a standard chain maille pattern, I was able to create a distinct unit of chain maille that also allowed for the capture of an accompanying round stone to tie the design together.

“Even though byzantine is a fairly simple chain maille weave, I really enjoy using it as a base upon which to build more complex designs. A good number of my designs incorporate this basic building block, or parts of it, and expand into unique variations.”

And Stainless Steel?

Chain Maille Jewelry Design: It’s All About the Unit. Stardust Necklace by Michelle Brennan

In this Stardust necklace, Michelle combines aluminum and stainless steel with metal gears and Swarovski rivolis; photo courtesy of the artist.

Her choice of stainless steel for the jump rings interested me, too. It can be challenging to work with, and there are so many white metal choices these days. Low cost compared to silver is an obvious advantage, but what else?

“I’ve just started to cut stainless steel jump rings. I’ve been able to work with our wire supplier to develop a slightly softer temper of stainless steel that leads to easier workability without compromising strength,” she explained. “Although I personally love the bright shine and light weight of aluminum, and the colors that can be obtained through anodizing it, I’m really starting to enjoy the darker tone and heavier weight of the stainless steel.”

Building Jewelry, Life Forms, and Chain Maille Units

Chain Maille Jewelry Design: It’s All About the Unit. Mandala-like Captive Dreamcatcher by Michelle Brennan

A large fused glass ring encircles varyingly sized hematite beads in the mandala-like Captive Dreamcatcher design by Michelle Brennan; photo courtesy of the artist.

Michelle’s diverse interests and styles all revolve around finding patterns, the key to discovering how things develop and where else they might lead. “I originally worked as a molecular biologist, and then a high school science teacher, before solely focusing on chain maille. Although I studied science academically, arts, crafts, and music have been a passion of mine all my life.

“I routinely paint, sketch, cross-stitch, sew, and just recently, have started to fuse glass and incorporate the finished fused glass pieces into my chain maille art. Even though I’ve been making jewelry on and off since childhood, I stumbled upon chain maille almost by accident about 10 years ago and fell in love instantly. The never-ending patterns that were possible with simple jump rings completely fascinated me, and I haven’t put my pliers down since.”

Chain Maille Jewelry Design: It’s All About the Unit. Lattice bracelet by Michelle Brennan, with bright aluminum and purple iris quadralentil beads; photo courtesy of the artist

Lattice bracelet by Michelle Brennan, with bright aluminum and purple iris quadralentil beads; photo courtesy of the artist

After focusing on creating chain maille jewelry for several years, Michelle branched out again. “My husband, Mark, and I then set out to build our own chain maille supply company, HyperLynks. Now, in our sixth year, we supply stores worldwide and I’ve written well over 100 chain maille patterns.

“My latest creations have seen the addition of a lot of mixed media — chain maille with the addition of beads and crystals, washers, metal gears, fused glass, etc. I’m always on the lookout for new funky components to add to my art to make it truly unique.”

Once a Teacher, Always a Teacher

Chain Maille Jewelry Design: It’s All About the Unit. For her Rainbow Bridge bracelet, Michelle uses colorful pressed Czech glass beads and anodized aluminum; photo courtesy of the artist.

For her Rainbow Bridge bracelet, Michelle uses colorful pressed Czech glass beads and anodized aluminum; photo courtesy of the artist.

Here’s a simple tip from Michelle on making eye pins, which she shares in her Amethyst Bar and Stainless Steel Byzantine Bracelet project. “In order to make sure you’re creating eye pins with consistently sized holes, gently mark your round nose pliers with a permanent marker at the point on the pliers where you’re creating each loop, and use this guide to make your eye pins,” she says.

“As I’ve always enjoyed teaching, I now love being able to teach chain maille classes at bead shows and bead stores,” Michelle adds. Of course she does. Figuring out is fun — but more fun if you can show others how it works, too.

Merle White is Editor-in-Chief of Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist and Editorial Director for the Interweave Jewelry Group.
PS – Don’t miss Michelle in person at the upcoming Bead Fest show in Philadelphia, PA.

Chain Maille Jewelry Design: It’s All About the Unit


Find the project and supply kit for the Amethyst Bars Bracelet in our store, while supplies last!