Concerning the “Watershed” feature

Watershed… To most people, the word is rather innocuous. A ridge of land that separates water flowing to different basins. Basically like the roof of a house, or shed. In the center of this roof is a chimney, or rivet head in the case of mail links. To someone who studies, or makes mail armour on the other hand, it has an almost hallowed reverence. Let me explain.

Years back when I was first getting started, I was introduced to a series of articles written by E. Martin Burgess pertaining to how original mail armour was crafted. In my view, he is the man who pioneered modern mail reproduction. It was he who coined the term watershed. The articles were very interesting, but in my mind, he seemed to complicate the process a bit too much. In his defense though, he did not spend as much time staring at original links as I have. Had he done so, his process might have been a bit different. Nevertheless, his writings inspired me.

Now, the manner in which I currently make links is almost identical to the method I used originally. Except for one small detail. Setting tongs. Before I started using them, I just placed the link over a shaped depression in a block of steel and set the rivet from the back with a few hammer strikes. The look wasn’t phenomenal, but it got the job done. It took quite a bit of trial and error before I realized that the method he was using was wrong. He thought that the links were lapped before they were flattened, as opposed to the other way around. While this is accurate for certain types of mail, it is not for the flattened links so common in mail from Germany. Once I realized this mistake, things became much clearer as to how the so-called watershed look was created.

Fig. 1 – Links of the A2 mail shirt in the Wallace Collection, London, UK. The “watershed” feature is clearly visible.

It should be noted that the quest for accurately creating the watershed feature could be likened to the quest for the Holy Grail. A large number of modern mail-makers feel it is the be all end all of mail links. If they can create that one single feature, then they’ve achieved greatness. Hardly. That may sound harsh, but to be honest and put it in perspective, it was one feature of original mail links out of scores that were used. And it’s a trivial one at that.

Burgess believed that the watershed feature was created with the use of specially shaped indentations in the jaws of a large hinged device. In this he was mostly correct. Where he erred was thinking that the look was created through the use of this swaging die prior to the lapped ends being pierced. We now know that this was not how the look was created. The correct process is this:

  1. Wire is coiled around an appropriately sized mandrel
  2. Individual links are clipped from the resulting coil of wire
  3. These links are then flattened (depending on the hardness of the wire, the links may need to be softened before flattening)
  4. The ends of the links are then lapped over one another in a counter-clockwise fashion (right over left)
  5. The lapped links are then softened in order for ease of piercing
  6. The lapped ends are then pierced (the drift used for piercing will leave a slightly rectangular/ovoid hole)
  7. A triangular rivet is the inserted into the hole and it is then set and shaped with a pair of specially designed tongs

It is step number seven that gives the lapped joint of the link its characteristic shape. Care must be taken to ensure that the link is not flattened too much, otherwise there will not be enough material for the tongs to adequately shape. As you can see, there’s nothing magical, or mysterious about this shape. It was common to almost all mail of German manufacture. We first begin to see it in the late 13th/early 14th centuries. The reason(s) behind this are not clear. It could be that it was just simply an aesthetically pleasing look that came about by accident. Italian mail didn’t have it, nor did Scandinavian however. This could indicate then that it was a regional characteristic.

With the incredible amount of mail that was manufactured in the various German areas during the 14th and 15th centuries that shared this feature, it would not be surprising if there was a tool-maker that specialized in making mail tongs. We know that mail-makers were distinct from link-makers. Is it such a stretch then to think that they would both purchase their tools from a craftsmen who specialized in that trade?

Fig. 2 – 14th century coif, Edinburgh, Scotland

Fig. 3 – 14th century shirt crafted in N├╝rnberg, now in the Musee de l’Armee, Paris, France.

This brings us to the question of whether or not we should replicate this feature exactly. I mean, creating it is relatively easy, so why not. The reason is simple; posterity. It’s difficult enough to determine the provenance of most original mail items without throwing modern reproductions into the mix to further complicate things. Over the years I’ve been contacted by various unethical antiques dealers, who had pieces that they wanted restored. Unfortunately, their idea of restoration and mine were vastly different. They desired the restoration links to be practically indistinguishable from the originals. I knew what their motives were, so needless to say, I didn’t take on the commissions. Fakes are a huge problem in the antiques world. I see no need to make the problem even larger by expanding it to mail. Can I produce links that look just like the originals? Absolutely. But, I feel it is better to have links that are identifiable to me. If I’m putting the time and effort into creating them, then I deserve the acknowledgement.

You see, I’m a collector as well. Not of mail, but of oil lamps amongst other things. Fakes piss me off to no end, to say nothing of the dealers who try to pass them off as the real thing. No, I’ll continue to make links that look close enough to something that could have been made centuries ago, but distinct enough to know that they are a modern interpretation.

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