Chains: Part 5

Last time we discussed some of the natural, and fairly simple variations on round chain links. And I promised that this time we would talk about chain links that may make your brain hurt. Or maybe it is just trying to describe the chains that makes my brain hurt…

Before we go on to the more complex 3D forms let’s look at one more way to form a figure eight. This Greek Cymbal with Chain, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is characteristic of the cymbals that the Greeks used in ecstatic rituals around the 5th-4th century BC. The picture clearly shows the figure eight shaped links. This time they are made by making a loop on each side of the main line of the wire, without any crimping of the central wire, and the ends of the wire are opposite one another on most of the links.

And now on to the more complex forms. These chains all start out as figure eights (like the cymbal chain) but then instead of being flat links, half of the link is twisted 90 degrees. I should note that these chains seem to be used starting at least as early as the Greeks and going solidly down into at least the 1500’s in Europe. I have found them all over Europe and the Mediterranean and at least as far east as Persia. I have not studied Far Eastern chains extensively, so I can’t speak for that area. But yet I had never seen any modern jewelry chains that were obviously made this way. It would be interesting to try to figure out when and why they stopped making these chains for jewelry, or whether they are just not represented in Museum collections.

Pictures are definitely your friends when talking about these sort of things. So here is a chain, just like the one used on the Greek Cymbal, except half of the link has been turned 90 degrees from the rest of the link. I call this a Twisted Figure Eight, just for convenience. This censor in the collection of the British Museum still retains one of the chains that were originally used to hang it. The ends of the links are rounder than the cymbal chain, but the basic form is the same, until you twist it.

This next example is also a Twisted Figure Eight. This chain is part of a Byzantine suspension piece, from the British Museum. I case you are wondering what a suspension piece is, one use for them is to incorporate them into large chandeliers that suspended oil lamps or candles in cathedrals. But back to the chain. What makes this chain look different is the fact that the large chain at the top of the piece is made with square wire. The smaller links on the secondary chains are made with round wire.

I put together a simple photo of the type of links that I discussed in this blog so that you can see them all at once. Making the links has given me a renewed appreciation for the ancient craftsmen.

Figure 8 links

Number 1 shows the basic cymbal chain link. Number 2 shows the same link twisted. Number 3 shows the rounded link form and 4 shows the twisted version. 5 and 6 are done with square wire to show how much it changes the look. The wire for all of the links is brass, except for the square wire, which is copper. I didn’t have any square brass wire. And 7 shows what a couple of #4’s look like when they are hooked together.

Next time: Moving on to the letter B!

Chains Part 4

What sort of Shaped Chains do we find?

If you remember, last time I divided shaped chains into chains that started out round, and chains that may not have started out round. The reason that I say “may not” is because we have no way of knowing, based on the final shapes of these chains if they started out as round links, or some other shape. Round links are definitely one of the easiest shapes to wrap, but modern link making equipment also uses square, oval and triangular mandrels to wrap loops. I have recently begun experimenting with unusually shaped mandrels. It definitely takes a little getting used to, but it has potential. Unless we found a mandrel, in use, that was just left there with unfinished links (and a few cut ones and a partial chain just to help us know what was going on) we have no positive proof of exactly how a link was made, all we have is the final result.

I should also mention that I am only currently discussing chains that are made from wire, not chains made from cast links. The chain on this gold enameled pendant from Germany is an excellent example of how cast links can be used, and just how elaborate some of them can be. And a La Tené chain with cast loops shows that simple can still be impressive.

Anyway, probably the simplest change from round is oval. This 9th to 8th century BC bronze chain from Iran is a classic example. The picture is good because you can actually see where most of the links open.

Another relatively easy way to change a link is simply to squish that oval even further. The basic form becomes a figure eight, without any crossing of wires. This iron chain shows the concept. I know that I have seen a better example, but of course, when you actually go looking for something…

And once you have squished a link into a figure eight, you can make the squished part of the link longer and wrap the center of the figure eight with a wire spiral. I have actually seen two different forms of this type of link, one where a separate spiral of wire is wrapped onto the link and another where the wrap is actually created from the same wire as the link. The first entry on this Pinterest page is a copy of a page from the original publication on the finds at Birka, Sweden. The page shows just a few of the different types of chains that were found there. Number 13 shows one of the chains where the wrap is actually the same wire that the link is made from.

progression of link shapes








This graphic shows the sort of natural progression that we can create in link formation. The links can be made as long as we want to, limited only by the limitations of the type of metal and the size of the wires that we use. Picture number 11 in the Birka chains is an excellent example of a long exaggerated link.

Next time: Link shapes that may make your brain hurt.

Chains! Part 3

Last time we talked about making basic round links and cutting them, and three of the most basic and common chain patterns. After I wrote that, and posted it, I realized that I had forgotten one of the coolest pre-1600 chain patterns – the twisted chain.

Now this chain pattern differs from all the other patterns that I have mentioned in one very important way. The pattern has to be created as a continuous loop. It depends on the tension that is created by the loop of the chain to create the twist in the chain.

Now I confess, I am not going to try to teach you how to create this chain, but I will show you a picture of it. I purposefully chose two chains made from different sized links to show how different the chain can look, depending on the link size.

two twisted chains

Some of you are probably wondering why I have not mentioned the infamous Byzantine chain. I have had this conversation with several very serious researchers, and the reason for all of us is the same. We can’t find an example of a pre-1600 Byzantine chain. Now this could change at any time of course, but for now. The Byzantine chain, as cool as it may be, is NOT on my list of pre-1600 chain patterns.

So back to what I was supposed to be talking about – shaped chain links. I am going to divide this category into two parts, links that start out as rounds and are changed in some way, and links that may never have been round. Now, that may sound a bit vague, but I think it will make sense in the long run.

The most common “used to be round” links are used in a technique called Loop in Loop. It starts the same way, wrapped wire on a dowel, and then the wire is cut to create a link. And here is where everything changes – instead of just closing the link with a couple of pairs of pliers and using it, the link is closed, and then it is soldered closed. The link is then formed, and the formed links are woven together.

When I do this in my shop I actually use a pair of pliers to stretch the individual links. There are many different shapes that the links can be formed into. This diagram shows the simplest form of this chain. This chain is very strong because the links are soldered and more than one wire goes through each link connection.

Loop in Loop chain








This type of loop-in-loop forms a very simple linked chain. The actual shapes of the wires can easily be seen. But more complex forms of this chain can create very complex interwoven shapes that actually resemble wire weaving. A considerable number of the modern Balinese silver chains, the ones that almost look like a snake chain, are made this way. I found an example of a Roman chain at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that shows the form of the loop beautifully. If you click on the four arrows it will make the picture full screen. And yes, this was a very lucky chain because it had both a crescent and a phallus pendant on it.

And this Greek necklace is a much finer version of a loop in loop chain.

Next time – what sort of other shaped chains do we find?