One type of chain that symbolises the 1840s and the 1850s was the snake chain. Although snakes have been popular throughout the centuries, there was a period just before Victoria came to the throne and in the first 20 years of her reign when snake jewellery was all the rage. Necklaces and bracelets shaped like snakes were worn, with the snake’s heads set with diamonds, or less expensive gemstones like turquoise and garnets. Brooches and stick pins had snakes coiled around them. Rings were coiled around fingers like snakes with one or two heads.
Underpinning this jewellery was a chain designed to emulate the scales of a snake. It was known as snake chain and sometimes as Brazilian chain. It was flexible, comprised of smooth round plates which were slightly curved and joined together to form a tube. They were very time-consuming to make, compared with the labour required to create the simple loop in loop chains.
The 1850s were important in the history of chains as it was the decade when mechanisation of chain making became significant. Simple mechanisation of link chains began in the mid century, with inventors in Providence, Rhode Island, being the leaders. On the 2 February 1856, Bryce Grey Nichol from Rhode Island was granted a patent for ‘A new or improved method of manufacturing those kinds of ornamental metallic chains known as ‘Braxiliaa’ or ‘snake* and other like patterns’. In 1857, George Haseltine, a London patent lawyer, applied for a patent for a snake chain manufacturing process developed by E H Parry of Rhode Island. The machine was able to replace the work of seventy operatives and produce perfect snake chains. An improvement on this machine was patented in the UK in 1860. Patents for machines able to make other types of chains were granted in 1866, 1870, 1874 and 1875. This did not mean that no chains were being hand made in Victorian and later eras but many were made by machine from now on.
Snake chains continue to be produced and worn today but they are usually not hand made.