Houdini himself would have struggled to escape the chains that have lured fashion lately. They’ve been appearing all over the catwalks – as jewels and body ornaments, geek-chic glasses chains and medieval-inspired châtelaines; as shoulder-trailing earrings at Brandon Maxwell and chunky gold necklaces at Bottega Veneta. In Virgil Abloh’s first fashion-jewellery collection for Louis Vuitton menswear, he put a new spin on the urban classic Cuban-link chain with exuberant multicoloured neon links, infusing Parisian chic with skater-boy energy. Then came Normal People’s Connell Waldron with his boyishly alluring silver neckchain. And everyone got hot under the collar.
Big or small, simple or gem-smothered, chains powerfully link the masculine and feminine, the past and present, the intimate and industrial. In fact, with influences ranging from Renaissance splendour, ’60s jet-set glam and ’70s industrial-chic to punk, ’90s street style and hip-hop, the chain – ironically – offers today’s designers the ultimate freedom of expression.
For the Italian fine jeweller Pomellato, the chain is closely linked to its origins in Milan in 1967 and a time of social, cultural and artistic revolution. Founder Pino Rabolini came from a family of traditional goldsmiths, yet, immersed in the youthquake, he saw the potential of infusing conventional jewellery with the energy of the city’s fast-growing prêt-à-porter scene, creating pieces that women would buy for themselves and wear every day. He took the classic gold chain and tapped Italy’s goldsmithing skills to make it fluid, feminine and body-conscious without compromising its strength and heritage. The resulting gourmette chain, refined over the decades, can be found in Pomellato’s contemporary classic, the Tango, a lilting, exuberantly seductive version of the curb chain. When I visited the Milan workshops a few years ago, I witnessed one of the artisans heating the generously rounded links, then, with a deft flick of the wrist, twisting them into their characteristic undulating shape.
Creative director Vincenzo Castaldo sees the chain as “the authentic handwriting of Pomellato: masculine in strength and feminine in fluidity”, and attributes its current popularity to its “symbolic value, its variety and versatility”. Today, in the maison’s continuing dialogue with fashion, the Tango is smothered in gems: vibrant sapphires or white or brown diamonds. “We’ve reinvented it with glamour, preciousness and playfulness,” Castaldo says. The latest gourmette-chain-inspired collection is the neo-minimal Brera – light, slender and silky, like a second skin, honouring the founder’s mission to celebrate the intimate relationship between a woman and her jewels.
In her 1885 collection, fellow Italian Carolina Bucci also pays homage to the origins of her family’s artisanal goldsmithing company in Florence. Named for the year in which her great-grandfather launched his business, hand-making bespoke watch chains and repairing pocket watches, the collection revisits the rounded Rollo link, one of the earliest made by the family. The links come in different colours of gold, with the designer’s distinctive stippled, sparkling Florentine finish, or pavéd in blue, pink or orange sapphires, and can be bought individually, or a few at a time, and linked however you choose. “Chains are very dear to me, and have always been my self-signifier,” Bucci says. “They’re classics, worn by Italian grandmothers, and today it’s their retro feel that makes them cool.” She herself layers chains, from chokers to sautoirs, with beads and pendants, or winds them several times around the wrist, jangled with bangles and charms.
Chain-stacking is having a moment, agrees Sophie Quy, commercial director for personal-styling service Threads. “Chains are being worn in various ways, from everyday minimal – a single, flat-link chain by Lauren Rubinski or a snap-lock, transformable link motif earring by Eéra – through big, chunky chains, stacked in multiples, perhaps with a diamond tennis necklace, all the way to the major bejewelled statement of Boucheron’s stunning Maillons necklace, a modern, playful take on a heritage classic.”
The idea of subverting a classic also connects to the ’70s and to the hard-edged, urban, mechanistic mood of a newly industrialised New York. Tiffany & Co’s HardWear collection, modelled on a 1971 unisex bracelet in the company archives called Ball and Chain, recalls the assembly line through a repetitive pairing of linear chain links and ball bearings – a motif that adapts to pendants, earrings, neck chains and bracelets. A similar spirit has driven Louis Vuitton’s artistic director for watches and jewellery, Francesca Amfitheatrof, to create the striking LV Volt collection, including the Curb Chain series, in which the crisp graphic logo initials LV are interconnected in architectural style as bracelet, neckchain and drop earrings.
In her A New Act of Rebellion collection, designer-jeweller Hannah Martin gives the chain a punk edge in massively oversized interlocking chain-link bangles that double as table sculptures. “For me, it’s about freedom, strength and power,” she says, “and it’s also the quintessential cross-gender jewel.” Her current designs are based on heavy, industrial steel chains, the kind you find padlocked to gates, and the necklaces jumble different links and tones of gold, hung with safety-pin pendants, to recreate the thrown-together aesthetic of punk jewellery. “I imagined an empty, post-party room,” she says, of her creative process. “It’s destroyed but still reverberating with energy.”
Earrings have become an unexpected focal point for the chain. Ana Khouri connects her ear pieces with articulated miniature chains in gold or pavé-set with diamonds or rainbow-shaded gemstones – the perfect balance of tradition and rebellion. Diane Kordas drapes hers with fine gold chain strands. Meanwhile, designer Prabal Gurung, who is also creative director of Japanese pearl and diamond jeweller Tasaki, accessorised his s/s ’20 New York fashion show with monumental earrings in the form of overscaled architectural chain links, inside which nestled a single South Sea pearl. The chain, states Gurung, is a perfect expression of his “femininity with a bite” aesthetic. “I find the use of chain to be very dynamic, and I love taking something traditional and turning the concept on its head.”
A further challenge to conventional perceptions comes from the Value Chain collection, a collaboration between Byredo and jeweller Charlotte Chesnais. Together they’ve designed a capsule collection of contemporary chain necklaces, bracelets and rings, in silver, gold and diamonds, the links individually modelled and assembled into complex articulation by French artisan-goldsmiths. Byredo’s Ben Gorham says he was interested in the “historical relevance of jewellery, how it transforms the wearer, how it makes you feel”. For Chesnais, it was about the intimacy of jewellery-wearing and the opportunity for individual self-expression. “The chain can be worn by either sex and it will look so different; the interpretation will be so different. It is generous, simple and strong,” she says. They saw the chain as both a complex structure and a visual metaphor for collaboration and interaction.
Right now, it’s this element of connectivity, togetherness, timelessness that resonates the most. As Ana Khouri explains: “We’ve started using the links as a symbol of connection. We are all connected, today more than ever. The only way forward is together.”