by Mary Ellen Riddle / Correspondent
March 5, 2021
For Shelley Tidd. creating chain mail jewelry is a holistic experience that marries body, mind and intuition.
Unlike Medieval soldiers who wore chain mail garments to protect their bodies during battle, Tidd employs the ancient blacksmithing art to create body adornment. Guided by intuitive feelings, with an origin that Tidd shows by placing her hand above her heart, the Buxton artist fashions metal jewelry such as necklaces and bracelets.
“I love the process of doing it,” says Tidd of the craft that can find her working with tiny parts while juggling multiple tools at the same time.
Some of her chain mail designs, which can use Byzantine and Persian patterns, have their roots in antiquity. The earliest examples of chain mail found in Slovakia and Romania date to the third century B.C. Ancient chain mail is believed to have originated with the Celts. Resembling a modern knitting pattern, it was formed into flexible, protective garb using metals such as iron, brass and steel.
But the work is not as forgiving as knitting where you can tug on yarn and unravel a section. Tidd says once past a certain point in the design, it is a difficult task to undo errors, so focus is essential. Chain mail is formed by linking metal rings to form patterns called weaves. Twenty-first century artists, like Tidd, use jump rings, a common metal ring used in jewelry design. The 65-year-old has mastered 10 weaves thus far and is charged by both process and outcome.
“It makes me feel so good,” she says. “And when I am done … oh my god, that is so cool.”
Modern uses for chain mail other than jewelry design include wearing it as protection in occupations such as butchery, oyster shucking, scuba diving, animal control and high voltage electrical work. The goal is to avoid stabs, cuts, bites, flying shrapnel, splashes and electric shock. Chain mail also evolved to be used decoratively and as a symbol of status by the military and still appears on epaulettes worn by the British Territorial Army.
Today’s artists create chain mail jewelry, wall hangings and sculpture. Hundreds of weave designs exist that bring variety to the creations. Mix and match them, use different colors and sizes of aluminum and brass jump rings – generally ranging from 5 to 9 millimeters – and you have endless possibilities. The metallic ring colors include turquoise, cobalt blue, red, copper, yellow-green, emerald green, black and silver. The flexibility seen in the ancient wear plays a more lyrical role in jewelry design. Necklaces can safely move and sway, adding motion to their allure.
Tidd’s work is stunning and meticulously crafted. Yet her studies are ongoing. A former ceramic artist, she is no stranger to the arts. She also created bead jewelry before moving on to chain mail. The latter venture began by poring through chain mail books. If she got stuck on a project, she clicked on YouTube and watched designers create. Then, she would work for weeks to master the design, attaching jump rings in an overlapping pattern. “I just love chain mail,” she says, “how it looks, the fact that I can look at it after I made it (and) I know how I made that.
Her designs are enhanced by adding beads, intriguing clasps and charms to the woven metal chains. Tidd sets the stage by laying out all the accoutrements on a mat in steps from the beginning of the process to the end to see what color rings go together, which clasp fits the look, and what beads enhance the overall design. Again, it is all about what “feels” right.
On one piece she may want a charm to take center stage while the woven chains play supporting parts. In another piece, the chains get the most focus and can have no charm additions. It can be a dance of contrasts pairing all the components. Some additions are matte, some shiny. Some are simple, others ornate – from a turquoise glass bead or a Swarovski crystal to a fancy fish clasp or plain circle clasp called a lobster claw.
Weaves can be boxy; others are more rounded. A single necklace or bracelet can have one or multiple chains therefore controlling the width of the piece. The chains are connected by wires – their colors another consideration. Think brass, bronze, gold, silver and gun metal, to name a few. One necklace can have as many as 300 jump rings.
“I get my own ideas from my own stuff,” Tidd says of how inspiration strikes. “The more you do, the more ideas you get.”
Gifted with a keen sense of color, Tidd prefers working with contrasting hues such as pairing copper with cerulean jump rings and turquoise with gold. “It’s kind of like music,” she says, likening it to individual instruments coming together to form a unified song.
Generally, Tidd wants her eyes to take in all the parts as a whole. But sometimes, she likes to direct the orchestra and feature solos. She will then strategically place an eye-popping charm to create a focal point or uses a subtle one to play a quieter role. This compositional dance and visual expression go on for about three hours depending on the complexity of the design. She may start several projects and go back and forth between them depending on her mood and patience.
“The radio station helps me with that,” says Tidd, a programmer at Radio Hatteras where she puts together solo shows and co-programs a third by arranging songs. “I pick the next song by how it feels. It all comes down to mood.”
Tidd currently has 200 chain mail jewelry pieces in her eclectic online portfolio. She says she feels lucky to have something that inspires her.
“It’s something that gives me so much energy.”
Check out Tidd’s creations on Facebook under Pony Boy Fine Handcrafted Jewelry or call 252-216-8300 for more information.
Mary Ellen Riddle has been writing the Coast’s art column for more than 27 years and brings to her work a BFA in painting from East Carolina University and a profound passion for the role the arts play in society.