Hartley Jewelers Helps Client Create Unique Bracelet From Rare Helicopter Chain

The finished bracelet, made for Brian Reynolds, by Hartley Jewelers.


Submitted by Hartley Jewelers

Brian Reynolds searched for a custom jeweler in Olympia to craft a bracelet from an old helicopter chain.

Legend has it that Vietnam War pilots and crew who survived a crash in a Bell UH-l1 “Huey” helicopters made bracelets from the wreckage’s rotor chain to wear as a badge of honor.

Brian Reynolds, President of Northwest Helicopters, was familiar with that story and had seen a number of old black-and-white photos of soldiers wearing the self-fashioned bracelets. His passion for helicopters and aviation history soon fueled a desire to acquire one for himself. He searched years for an original chain before his wish became a reality.

The Huey, first used by the military in the 1960s, initially used a 15-inch length of specifically manufactured chain to control the tail rotor pitch.

“The chain is particular to the Bell UH-1 helicopter,” says Reynolds. “It’s only found on that model of helicopter and nowhere else.”

The chains, not well suited to the extreme challenges of combat that these helicopters faced, were eventually replaced by an updated, modernized version and were gone from service by the late 1960s. Today, it’s extremely difficult to find the original design.

“People are really hunting for these things. You just can’t find them,” Reynolds says of the original Vietnam-era bracelets. “And the ones you can find, the people have been wearing since the 1960s and they’re all worn out, basically.”

The chain, a series of a little plates and pins, moves in one motion.

An image of the rotor chain on a Vietnam-era helicopter.

“I’d been looking for a chain for 15 years, and then I found two by accident,” says Reynolds. “I was going through a box of other surplus helicopter parts and they happened to be at the bottom of it.”

Reynolds had finally uncovered the rare chain. Now he needed to find a local jeweler to help make his long-held dream a reality.

He opened his web browser and typed in “custom jeweler” and “Olympia.” He found three places to check out.

Hartley Jewelers was the most responsive,” Reynolds says. “I basically went in and said, ‘This is off a 1960s helicopter. Can you make a bracelet out of it?’”

In fact, Reynolds had an example to share with Hartley Jewelers: an old, worn version of the bracelet given to him by a European Huey owner many years before.

“It was old and tired, but it was a good example,” says Reynolds. “It was more of a field modification than a jewelry store product.”

Goldsmith and heirloom restorer Margit Phillips, who is part of Hartley Jewelers talented team of jewelry artisans, looked at the bracelet and chain, listening carefully to what Reynolds wanted.

The finished bracelet, made for Brian Reynolds, by Hartley Jewelers.

With 25 years of jewelry expertise behind her – the first 10 of them in her homeland of Germany – Phillips examined the sample and knew that it was a durable design that could be duplicated.

The design uses a modified watchband clasp fit to the chain. “I really thought it was very durable and the design made sense to me,” says Phillips.

Using the original bracelet as a pattern, Phillips was able to divide out the length of chain and make five bracelets. A few months later, Reynolds had her do the same with the second chain.

“The overall chain is surprisingly heavy,” says Phillips. “But as a bracelet, it’s quite wearable.”

Phillips admits she was surprised by how soft the chain’s metal was. “When I had to re-rivet things to put the clasp on, I had to drill through some of the holes in the links. I realized it ground away faster than I expected.”

The bracelet has two sides — the gear side, which has all the points that run over the gear, and then the soft side, which is worn on the inside, against the wrist.

Reynolds laughs when describing the bracelet he now wears every day. “You’ve got to be careful with them, because they have sharp edges,” he says. “Most people would see it as something a punk kid would wear, that could cut someone.”

But to everyone in his industry, the piece is instantly recognizable. “Everybody who sees it says, ‘Whoa! There’s one!’” he says.

Phillips, who has worked on so many unique custom pieces over the years, counts this project as one of the most distinctive.

An example of a helicopter pilot wearing a similar chain bracelet.

“And that’s something that’s really fun about working with jewelry,” she says. “There are still pieces that really catch your eye. I’ve been doing this for 25 years and you never stop learning.”

Recently, a young man came into Hartley Jewelers with a bracelet, given to him by his grandfather that was also made from a Huey chain.

“He had no idea about the significance of that bracelet until he came here,” says Phillips, who of course immediately recognized the piece and was able to share the history of it with him.

Reynolds has held onto a few of the custom-made bracelets, giving others to friends and people that work for him.

After so many years searching for the elusive rotor chain, and having a vision in his head of the finished product, was Reynolds happy with the final bracelets?

“Absolutely. It came together perfectly and it was exactly what I was looking for,” he says.

See Reynolds’ bracelet and a glimpse of Phillips at work creating it in this Hartley Jewelers video or learn more about custom jewelry possibilities by visiting the Hartley Jewelers website.

Hartley Jewelers
400 Cooper Point Road SW in Olympia

Tuesday – Friday: 10am to 6pm
Saturday: 10am to 5:30pm

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