Melissa Banks was born in Lake Villa, IL in 1973, and, although there were artists in her family, her path was mostly an academic one. She began attending the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1991, majoring in computer science in the engineering program. After a year and a half, she discovered she was not happy, decided to follow her passion for creating jewelry, and diverted her path to the Crafts/Metals program.
It was during her studies in Metals that Melissa discovered her love for chainmaille. She studied the origins and historical applications of maille as the medieval knights had worn for protection under their armor, and was drawn to the idea of transferring its purpose for the application of adornment and jewelry design. She taught herself how to link together the basic chainmaille pattern and used the technique as the basis for her senior thesis project. It started making sense that her initial path in engineering had transformed itself to a path in the arts with a focus on the precise and mathematical construction of a metal fabric patiently built link by link.
After graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Crafts/Metals in 1996, Melissa began working in Chicago at the studio of a local jewelry designer. While also bartending in the evenings, Melissa began creating her own designs with the goal of someday starting her own business. After the opportunity came along to show her work at a holiday art show, she became hooked on the art fair circuit.
Since that first show in December of 1999, Melissa has been exhibiting her jewelry at juried art fairs around the Midwest. In 2008, she officially quit her part-time waitressing job and became a full time artist. In the fall of 2010, she moved Rapt in Maille out of her home and into its first real studio space in the Ravenswood neighborhood of Chicago. Melissa continues challenging herself to invent new ways to incorporate chainmaille into beautiful, classic jewelry that anyone can enjoy.
Rapt in Maille jewelry combines traditional patterns of chainmaille with contemporary decorative elements and a modern, urban design sensibility. A significant focus of the work lies in the provocative integration of masculine vs. feminine. This is apparent throughout the jewelry collections in the juxtaposition of the masculine component of chainmaille with feminine design quality, use of materials, and its application for adornment. It is often surprising to wearers of the jewelry to see how such a typically masculine material can be made to look so elegant and beautiful.
Another significant aspect of Rapt in Maille jewelry is the tactility. The chainmaille, often mixed with other various strands of draping chain, can create a very pleasing feel when worn against the skin. It is typically much lighter than it looks, feels luxurious and slinky, and therefore extremely comfortable to wear.
Each piece is designed from an idea that brings about experimentation of process and materials. Unlike many other designers, a sketch is always made after, rather than before. Inspiration often comes from new discoveries on how to link rings together, how to incorporate a newly found material, or from an interesting structure that Melissa believes can be replicated with chainmaille.
Rapt in Maille jewelry is patiently handmade link by link. The chainmaille is built by opening and closing individual links while weaving them together in a specific pattern. If a piece has any length of chain in the design, each chain is painstakingly measured and cut so that the design lays properly on the wearer, with placement, weight, and gravity playing a major role.
The predominant material of Rapt in Maille jewelry is stainless steel. Due to its strength, stainless is a very difficult metal to work with, and Melissa is one of the only chainmaille artists who creates exclusively with this material. It has taken years and years for her to develop the skill to easily manipulate the rings, and takes pride in the quality of the ring closures and overall craftsmanship. Using only pliers and her bare hands, she has developed quite an impressive collection of protective callouses, namely two large ones in the palms of her hands where the pliers sit.
Stainless steel is known for it's non-corrosive qualities, so it is very resistant to rust or tarnish, and will only do so if exposed to harsh chemicals over time. It is a great material for jewelry for this purpose, because it seldom requires cleaning or maintenance. The color is more of a metallic silver, compared to sterling silver, which is more of a bright, white silver. However, when polished, stainless steel has a very deep, rich luster.
Another major advantage to stainless steel is that it can be worn by many people who have metal allergies, namely nickel allergies. There are different grades of stainless steel, some that are completely nickel-free, and some that do have a trace amount of nickel. However, it is usually so insignificant that people with nickel allergies will not react to it. The stainless steel alloys that are used in Rapt in Maille jewelry are stainless steel 304, 308 and 316.
Melissa's goal is to use stainless steel as much as possible within the design to keep consistency for wear and care of the jewelry. She has spent many years researching and finding stainless steel jewelry components to incorporate in her work, which has been a difficult task since not many jewelry suppliers carry them. Because of this, some components, such as clasps, are specifically designed for Rapt in Maille.