What do the links of William the Conqueror’s chain mail, Tony Manero’s gold chain in Saturday Night Fever, and your grandmother’s knitting all have in common? Italians call all three: maglia. That is because they originate in one of man’s first forms of adornment: braided grasses and fibres.
Later, metal took the place of fibres, and gold and silver wire strips were twisted, stacked and stretched into chains. These braided precursors of the modern link chain turn up at archaeological sites from ancient Ur to Uppsala.
The classic interlocking rings we think of as chain were invented later, when goldsmiths became skillful enough to solder links without fusing them. Beautiful gold or silver chains are universal signs of wealth and power - what would Tudor portraits be without them?
There are hundreds of styles of chain, including twisted rosary chains and braided wheat and Byzantine chains. Link chain styles include anchor chain, flat gourmette links, s-links, the various-sized Figaro links, and Venetian chain with square links. Links of iron and steel, which are stronger than rope, put chain to work. Industrial chains made for transport - bicycle and tank treads - or shipping and hauling - shackle and anchor chains - now inspire fine jewellery designs.
At the centre of trade and metalworking for millennia, Italy and chains are inextricably linked. The Italian town of Arezzo is home to numerous chain makers including UnoAErre, which brought 18 carat Italian chain to a worldwide public in the 1980s (from its assay mark, 1ARezzo). Gucci and anchor chains are also synonymous. And Bulgari’s iconic “tubogas” bracelets and necklaces use the same kind of braided chain that protects industrial rubber hosing.
For centuries, jewellers have been inspired by the endless variety and challenges of looped and linked precious metal, with recent Italian jewellery collections proving there is more to discover. Chain links don’t have to be metal - Vhernier’s 2016 Pop collection features hand-carved coral, chrysoprase and turquoise links, which are perfect for summer. The mother-of-pearl and diamond pavé links of Vhernier’s Biscuit chains show black or white, taking advantage of the chain’s tendency to twist.
Known as the producer of handmade tubogas chains for the likes of Tiffany and Bulgari, Verona jeweller Carlo Weingrill’s high-quality pieces are sought after at estate auctions in their own right. In May 2016, the fourth-generation jeweller launched a collection of tubogas pieces with the Beladora estate jewellery platform. The rings, bracelets and necklaces are rigorously handmade, as are Weingrill’s precious interpretations of industrial shackle-pin chains.
Fiddling with flat links to solve a technical challenge was serendipitous for designer Laura Bicego. Her Trasformista collection for Nanis is based on flat gourmette chain. When the links are rolled up tight, the Trasformista is a simple gold bracelet. Unfurled and it becomes a necklace with diamonds. Another kind of transformation took place at Fope, which began as a manufacturer of watch parts. Now a full-scale jewellery firm, Fope’s Novecento collection features multiple strands of links worked into supple cords embellished with stones.
And where would Italy be without the rosary? Anaconda’s Monica Rossi creates a contemporary object of veneration with a twisted rosary chain and a perfect branch of coral.
From past to present, from art to industry, it looks like Italian jewellery designers will never break the chain.