Don’t Just Put a Jump Ring on It! Design Custom Bails for Your Pendants
When I ask a student who is working on a pendant what the bail will look like, I usually get a blank stare. “Well, I never thought of that,” is a typical response. “I’ll just put a jump ring on it.” Well, you should think about it. Bails are not just something to run a chain or a piece of cord through. For a very simple pendant, a jump ring and a chain might work very well—but an unusual, handcrafted piece deserves something more.
ABOVE: The lines of texture in the silver box of this pendant represent torrents of rain, giving rise to the verdant but wet Orkney landscape represented by the rich green drusy uvarovite garnet. Lexi Erickson’s “Ode to Orkney” project appeared in the January/February 2018 Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist; photo: Jim Lawson
Think It All Through First
My best design advice is to think the entire pendant through—bail and all—before you start to cut and solder. That doesn’t mean you can’t make design changes as you go along. But if you have a pretty good idea of what the pendant will look like and how it will hang, then the basic bail design probably won’t change. If you try to add a bail to the back of a piece in a hasty afterthought, though, you may encounter challenges you weren’t expecting and aren’t prepared for.
Think of a bail as an extension of the pendant design. A small 2mm tube set stone can add a bit of elegance to the bail. Even a simple little ball soldered onto the bail can convey a feeling of completeness to a piece. If you sell your work, you might find that your customers start looking for the special touches you give your bails as a token of their handcrafted status.
There are no limits to the imagination you bring to designing your bails, as long as you also ensure that they serve that function well. So keep the following ideas in mind. The success of your pendant hangs on it!
Proportion and Weight
One of the most important things to think about is the proportion of the bail. A large piece needs a larger, usually wider bail to keep the pendant from flipping over. Nothing is more irritating for the wearer than to have to keep flipping a pendant over because the back is showing all the time.
Nor should the pendant flip over from top to bottom. To prevent this, a bail must be positioned in the top quarter of the back plate. (We call this the 1/4 rule.) Lower than that, and the pendant will have a tendency to fall forward.
You want no rough edges on a bail. The bail is subject to a lot of contact and motion that can create problems if it’s not completely smooth all the way around, inside and out. Run your fingers over every bit of your bail to be sure it’s all smooth.
The outside of the bail is what usually rubs directly on the skin, which you don’t want to irritate. A bail may also rub on clothing, which you don’t want to snag, especially easy to do if it’s something like a sweater or silk blouse.
You don’t want the wearer to prick a finger while putting a chain through the inside of the bail, either. You don’t want a sharp inside bail edge to wear down a cord or a cable that may be softer. And you don’t want to have a leather or any cord catch on a sharp bit of bail edge. The inside can be a bit tricky to handle, but it’s not that hard. I always file, sand, and burnish the inside of the bail with those nifty little abrasive Q-tip-style tools. Then burnish the inside edge of the bail, too.
Do you want your bail to be visible when worn, or should it be hidden? Have you thought of folding the bail forward? You might want the bail to be seen from the front even though it is attached to the back.
If the bail is visible from the front, the style of the chain or cord may be a consideration. The V formed by a chain may enhance or detract from the style of the piece, just as the gentler U shape of a cable may. Two small bails positioned on each side of the piece can be attached to a chain on either side of the pendant. An intricate, handmade chain may work best with this type of bail.
Bail Making: Which Metal?
The bail metal should match the metal to which it is attached. Silver base plates should have a silver bail, copper base plates should have a copper bail: it looks neat and professional. Remember, people will turn the pendant over, and you want the entire piece to be harmonious and consistent in design.
The Back Matters, Too
While the front of the bail may have a set stone, soldered wires, and other decorations, the back of a piece is usually a clean slate. This gives you the opportunity to fill it with beautiful shapes or an interesting pattern—as long as you keep it flat. Remember, it lies in a confined space, right against the wearer.
Try using a rolling mill on well-annealed metal, and place the non-patterned side on the front of the work and the pattern on the back. Think about texturing the bail metal, too. Sometimes I forget to stamp my name and the quality mark onto the back. When this happens, I just stamp them on the bail!
Mechanics of Bail Making
Make sure that both the chain and the findings will slip though easily. A well-designed bail will accommodate a variety of chains and cords. Yes, your customer may wear your beautiful pendant on an elegant chain to a fancy dress ball, but with a change to a braided cord, that same pendant can be worn to the rodeo!
How to Make an Easy Bail
All you need to make a hook bail, or as I call it a question mark bail, is a piece of scrap silver and a pair of looping pliers, also called bail making pliers. Depending on the size of the pendant, cut a strip of metal about 1/4-inch wide by 1-1/2 inches long. File the corners round. Bend the strip up on one end, and then down on the other.
Lay this bail onto a flat surface. Adjust the metal with the pliers until it lies flat on the surface, so it will not stick out too much from the back plate. Once you are happy, sweat solder some easy solder onto the back of the bail. Then join it to the pendant back—remembering the 1/4 positioning rule (in “Position” above). Quench, pickle, and rinse.
Lexi Erickson is an accomplished jewelry artist and teacher, and a Contributing Editor to Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist and Jewelry Making Daily. This post is adapted from her article “Harmonious Bail Design,” which appeared in the December 2012 Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist.
Find Out How to Make Custom Bails
Don’t “bail out” on your next bail design: give the whole pendant the attention it deserves! Let Lexi Erickson lead you into the world of handmade findings for the perfect finishing touches to your designs. Her video Artisan Bails will teach you what you need.
Use a Rolling Mill to Make a Bail Special
One way to add character to you next bail is texturing it by using a rolling mill. Learn all about using this popular piece of jewelry making equipment with expert metalsmith Richard Sweetman in his video Get the Most Out of Your Rolling Mill.
Extend Your Handmade Findings to a Secure Clasp
Learn to fabricate a secure clasp for your jewelry designs that you can also design to suit your piece. Tim McCreight shows you how in his Box Clasp project. Richard Sweetman teaches you how in his video Make a Box Clasp.
Learn more about making bails and other metalsmithing techniques today!