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Either used to display pendants and charms or as a piece of jewellery in its own right, the chain has been used for many centuries. Although most metal chains (including gold and silver) are made by machine, there are a few artisan jewellers around the globe that still make every link by hand.There are numerous names for standard styles of chains and these include: bill chain; barrel and link chain; belcher chain; cord chain; curb chain; Diamond trace chain; rope chain; strap chain; trace chain. Many of these chains on sale in Europe are produced in Italy, Turkey and Germany.Be extra careful of buying cheap chains abroad! My assistant Barry once bought a chain on a Spanish beach, after seeing it had an 18k stamp. When he brought it into the office the following week, I explained to him that it was not an official hallmark; it turned out to be polished brass! When it comes to gold if the price seems too good to be true it is probably not as described.The first country to fully develop machine made chains was Italy; hot on their heels were engineers in Turkey and more recently a handful of German companies who employ some of the world’s most technically admired technicians. Note my use of the words ‘engineers’ and ‘technicians’. When it comes to machine made chains, the skill set required is very different to that of the silversmiths and goldsmiths who hand make chains in areas such as Bali and India.To learn more about how chains are made via machinery and not hand, I visited one of my main chain suppliers in Germany to see how they do it. Their business started over 100 years ago when they made chains in a more similar fashion that I am used to seeing in our hand made jewellery facility in India. As you can imagine, being German they were always looking to develop new methods and machinery to make stronger and more cost effective chains. Marcus, who runs the company is its fourth generation, spent a whole day enthusiastically showing me the various different types of machines they use for making a wide array of styles. Although there is a different machine for every different style of chain, they all follow the same principle. First, various metals are annealed together to make the correct alloy. When they have cooled they are in a form of a wire that is approximately 1cm in diameter. Next the wire is milled to take on a more narrow form. It is then once again heated, but not to melting point, just enough to make it more malleable. Next, it is reduced to the required gauge for the chain that is to be made. So now you have, for example, a long reel of say 50 metres of 1mm gauge solid 925 Sterling Silver. Now depending on the style of chain, whether it be a belcher, an anchor cut, a twisted link, curb, trace chain etc, the reel is loaded onto a machine that has been specially designed to make that style and size of chain. The machines are typically four foot high and less than three foot square; surprisingly small for the job they do. Once the machine starts running, it twists the wire, creates the link, cuts the wire, inserts the next link inside the first and starts to automatically assemble the chain. The type of chain being assembled affects the speed at which the machine operates at, however most machines can run at around one hundred links per minute.Once the chain has been assembled it is still one very long length of around 20 or 30 metres, but at this stage it is still weak as the links are effectively just jump rings. The next process is to cover the entire chain in a silver welding powder and put it through a very large machine. With the exception of where the joint is situated, it removes all of the power from the chain and then each link is heated, welded and connected together. Once completed the joints are even stronger than the actual links themselves and have a breaking strength of 45 pounds. With the exception of adding the final clasps, standard chains are at this point completed. For snake chains, belcher chains, box chains, omega chains, etc, the standard chain must be once again passed through various machines that either, squash, compress, twist or stretch the links. All of the machinery they had developed impressed me, but one in particular stood out. It was a machine/method they had developed to make a Diamond cut chain. These chains are cut in such away that when light hits their surface, they sparkle as if they were studded by a mass of Diamonds. In the past the Diamond chains we had sold never quite sparkled the way I would have liked. With pride, Marcus demonstrated how they had developed the perfect Diamond cut chain. Once the basic chain had been completed, it was wound around a steel drum which was approximately twenty inches in diameter. As the drum slowly rotated, they would use a cutting tool with a diamond blade, to cut acute angles into the silver chain. The problem with the old method was that the chain would move slightly on the drum as it was being cut by the diamond and whilst the effect was good, it was not brilliant. His solution to the problem was pure genius. Once the chain had been wound around the drum they froze the drum so that the chain became stuck to it and the whole process was then carried out at sub zero temperature. The end result: the chain is held rigidly in place whilst the Diamond cuts the little indents and the final chain sparkles like the stars on the clearest winter night.
A machine-made Italian gold chain.
GIA qualified Gemmologists
Members of the British Jewellery Association
Members of the Coloured Gemstone Assocation