Buying Guide for Chain Maille Jewelry

4 09 2014

Chainmaille jewelry comes in a wide variety of quality. Some chainmaille jewelry exhibits high-quality craftsmanship, fine materials, and professional manufacturing techniques. Some chain jewelry shows sloppy work with little attention to detail and uses low-end materials. Most chainmaille jewelry is somewhere in between. If you are interested in buying chainmaille jewelry, how do you know what you are looking at? What should you look for in chain jewelry to determine whether the piece is worth the price?

1. Ring Closure

Ring closure refers to how accurately the cut ends of a jump ring match up. Most chainmaille jump rings are not soldered, so closure is the most important thing to look for. If rings don’t close completely, or if the cut ends don’t quite match up, the rings may scratch your skin and may, over time, pull apart. If the closures are particularly bad, you can see the gaps and mismatched edges easily. Near-miss closures you can feel with your fingers because they will scratch or feel bumpy. Perfect closures are difficult to see and feel smooth. Unfortunately, perfect closures are nearly impossible to create with handmade chainmaille. Even so, ring closures should not have gaps, feel scratchy, or be noticeably misaligned. Here is one of my pieces, with perfect and near-perfect ring closures.

Perfect and near-perfect jump ring closures

Perfect and near-perfect jump ring closures

Here is a lovely Rondo a la Byzantine bracelet from someone else. The bracelet is very nice, but some of the closures could be much better.

Missed.closures

Ring closure affects the price, as well as how much a buyer should be expected to pay. A jeweler has to work much harder to make perfect and near-perfect ring closures and must pay much greater attention to detail. The jewelry will also last longer, move more fluidly, and be more comfortable to wear. Bottom line: The jewelry is worth more when the rings are closed well.

2. Ring Cut

Jump rings are cut 2 main ways: with a saw or with clippers. Saw-cut rings will have a flat edge, and clipper-cut rings will have a wedge. Saw-cut rings produce higher quality jewelry because they create a flat surface at the ring cuts. When the rings are closed perfectly, they make a continuous ring. Clipper-cut rings have an additional problem. Because clippers pinch off the ends of a ring, they create a sharp edge, a knife edge that can really scratch your skin. On the other hand, saw cut rings may also scratch because the ring cut can be very sharp if the jeweler had a good saw blade. An imperfectly closed, saw-cut ring will scratch you. As I mentioned above, perfect closures are very difficult to achieve. A difference of less than 0.1 mm will be noticeable. You might not be able to see it, but you can probably feel it. For this reason, I typically file all the cut edges slightly to create a more rounded edge. I have noticed that people who make armor from stainless steel or high-strength industrial wire (such as for armor), tend to use clippers to cut their rings. These types of wire are much harder to saw cut than wire from copper, silver, a similar softer materials. When I first started making chainmaille jewelry years ago, I clipped all my rings. Soon after, I “graduated” to saw-cut rings. The difference in quality was extreme. Bottom line: The jewelry is worth more when the rings are saw cut.

3. Ring Density and Specifications

This characteristic is a bit harder to describe. High-quality chainmaille jewelry requires fairly exacting matching of wire gauge to ring diameter. It produces a dense weave in which the rings don’t “flop” out of positions. The weave should hold its shape under a variety of conditions. If the wire is too thin, or if the rings are too large for the wire thickness, the chain will be loose and floppy, and the weave will spread out and lose its shape. What you are looking for is a dense chain (a lot of rings per inch with little “air space” between them). However, the chain needs to be flexible enough to move fluidly. This is a fine line to achieve. Most beginning chainmaille makers don’t understand the issue of Aspect Ratio and use rings that are too large for the weave because it makes the weaving easier. Using too-large rings is ok for learning and practicing, but quality chainmaille jewelry reflects careful matching of ring size and wire gauge. On the other hand, some variation is fine to produce different looks. Here are two of my box chain bracelets using slightly modified ring specifications. The top bracelet (copper) is as loose as possible without losing the design. The bottom bracelet (silver) is a great, dense weave.

Two ring densities for a box chain weave

Two ring densities for a box chain weave

Now, for comparison, here is someone else’s bracelet that is far too loose. Notice that the weave is almost indistinguishable. It won’t hold its shape when worn, and the rings will flop around unless the chain is stretched out, meaning they will hang out away from the rest of the chain. This bracelet would have been much better if the jeweler either used heavier wire or used smaller rings.

Box chain with incorrect ring specifications

Box chain with incorrect ring specifications

Bottom line: The jewelry is worth more when the chain are dense but fluid, rather than loose with floppy rings.

4. Wire type

I hesitate to discuss wire type because really great jewelry can be made from a wide variety of wire types. Coated copper, anodized silver plate, and stainless steel can make beautiful jewelry. On the other hand, these material types are less expensive to buy and use than sterling silver, gold-fill, gold, and platinum (i.e., precious metals). With that said, plated and coated wires will lose their plating and coating over time, so they don’t stay as beautiful as when you first buy them. Plated and coated materials cannot be polished or they will lose their surface coloration and material fairly quickly. They do make a less expensive option to the higher-quality materials. Most importantly, they allow for lots of colors and interesting designs. For example, although sterling silver will always be sterling silver color (depending on the amount of tarnish, of course), anodized, permanently colored silver plated wire comes in many colors, from the deepest reds and blues to the lightest pinks and purples. Personally, I think lower-end materials are fine for casual jewelry that you use as a fashion accessory. They may not be “fine jewelry,” but they can be quite nice. The main difference is that high end materials cost more to use, have greater values, look and are more expensive, and will stay beautiful over time. Bottom line: The jewelry is worth more when it is made from precious metals.

It’s up to you.

When you are thinking about buying a piece of chainmaille jewelry, consider these four issues. Some may be more important to you than others, but they all should affect the price and how much you are willing to pay. If you are a jewelry maker, you, too, need to consider these issues when determining the price to set for your jewelry. For example, a bracelet with poor closures should not be priced the same as a similar piece with perfect closures, much like a silver-plated bracelet should not be priced the same as a sterling silver bracelet. The reverse is also true. If you make high quality jewelry with precious metals, don’t drop your prices to compete with lower quality pieces. Instead, instruct your buyers why your prices are appropriate.

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6 responses

4 09 2014
Janet

Couldn’t agree more!! People who can’t afford my chainmaille express a desire for me to use less expensive materials. I tell them that it takes the same amount of time to create chainmaille in less expensive materials as it does to create in silver and gold. I try to educate the consumer that they are buying classic jewelry that if made in precious metals will be in their collection for years. Thanks for a thoughtful article.

28 09 2014
chainofbeauty

Janet: Thanks. I’m glad you enjoyed the article.

4 09 2014
Loretta

Thanks for the great article. I have been experimenting with chainmaille for a couple years and now, cut my own rings. What a difference from clipping! Silver filled is as far as I can go money wise at this time but it does make nice looking pieces. One question–do you tumble polish finished pieces? I have a rotary and a vibe tumbler but haven’t tried it yet. ( I finish a lot of rock as well) Thanks for sharing your knowledge and expertise.

27 09 2014
chainofbeauty

Loretta: I tumble polish the sterling silver and gold-filled pieces. They look really great when polished, and the polishing process work hardens them so they are more sturdy.

You can see my tumbler and steel shot here:
http://www.chainofbeauty.com/chainmaille-resources/shop-tools-and-setup/

7 09 2014
Lori

Agree with most – but I take severe excetion to your classification of niobium being “cheap” – niobium (and its relative, titanium)are most definitely NOT CHEAP!!!
I have ben making jewelry since 1991.
And I would never buy any metal that is “filled” – which means, just coated with a coloring. Titanium is colored with electrical current/heat as is niobium. Yes, those colors can wear off over YEARS of CONTINUED and rough wear, but not like colors on cheap anodized aluminum, which I can remove the color form merely by using pliers to close the rings. Titanium is one of the hardest and most durable metals known to man – one of the only ones that can be used for TRUE tension setting of precious gemstones. Gee, perhaps that is why airplanes are made form the stuff! (And my engagement ring is a TI5 tension set.)
I own over 4 dozen titanium and niobium pieces that I have been collecting and wearing since 1982. Only one of them shows any wear – and it is because it has a 14K wire as part of the design – and, since titanium is MUCH harder than gold, the gold has transferred a bit onto the titanium.
My husband wears a colorful niobium and sterling wedding band. Other than the colors darkening up a bit – but still remaining colorful, the ring is still amazing.
And niobium and titanium are also hypoallergenic – a VERY important point for may people – which cannot be said for ANY of the other metals you list…for example, sterling has trace zinc and nickel which many people cannot wear. And only God knows what is in all those “gold-filled” and “silver-filled” pieces.
I recently bought “silver-filled” jumprings from a well-known chainmaille company (b/c their sterling prices were unrealistically high). The silver color coating CHIPS off, and the rings are so soft I can bend them with my fingers (and since the color chips off, they certainly can’t be work-hardened in a tumbler.) The bracelet I made from them – a simple byz weave – did not hold together at all due to the cheap metal. My arms have numerous scratches form the gaps that form from the lack of hardness of the base metal under the silver coating – and I have scratched my face with them as well. Lovely design – crappy material. And yes, I know how to close rings.
And yes, I will not use that company anymore. The Ring Lord (www.ringlord.com) has my biz from now on!

Nothing but 925, titanium and niobium for me, thank you. (BTW, anything higher than 10Kt gold is too soft for a durable piece of chainmaille jewelry.)

28 09 2014
chainofbeauty

Lori: I still wouldn’t put titanium and niobium in the precious metal category, but you’re right about their cost: they are not cheap. Regardless, I think my central point is still true: the value of the material affects the value of the jewelry and should affect its price.

I haven’t used silver-filled wire, but I have used quite a bit of gold-filled wire. Neither one should chip off the core material. That sounds more like silver plated wire. Perhaps it was just poorly made wire. I have tumbled gold-fill pieces, and they held up well without losing any of the gold external layer.

“Filled” is a very different process from coating or plating. With filled wire, a heavy layer of material (e.g., silver, gold) is bonded to a core wire. Whereas plating is similar to a coating of spray paint on a wall, filled is more like a layer of plaster. This article provides more information about “filled” versus “plated”:
https://chainofbeauty.wordpress.com/2013/03/31/mans-gold-box-chain-bracelet/

You make a good point about niobium / titanium and metal sensitivities. Sterling silver is pure silver and copper, although some alloys may have traces of other elements. People with severe sensitivities may wish to inquire about the specific alloy composition.

Thanks.

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