Jen Lisa’s career in jewelry making seemed destined from the start. The South China native remembers being fascinated by metal, jewels and shiny things from a very young age.
“I’ve always been dazzled by jewelry and shiny things,” said Lisa. “I would clean my grandmother’s diamonds. We had a sailboat growing up, and I remember being 8 years old and polishing the brass cleats on the boat until they got their luster back. I thought it was so pretty.”
Now the creative force behind jewelry line Quench Metalworks, Lisa has come full circle in her career. She started out working in a jewelry shop as a teenager, moved on to high-end galleries in Providence, R.I. and now has her own line of fine jewelry.
Quench, seen in shops and at shows around the state, combines her love of metalwork with a recycled edge, using antique buttons and porcelain to create a look that’s part old-fashioned, part contemporary. It’s for sale at shops around the state, including Spruce & Gussy in Bar Harbor, Roots & Tendrils in Belfast and the Center for Maine Contemporary Craft in Gardiner, as well as online at www.quenchmetalworks.etsy.com.
Lisa, 36, named her line Quench because that’s what you do to hot metal, once you’re done with it: you quickly submerge it in water to cool and harden it. Her studio is in a room upstairs in the house she shares with her husband and daughter. It is full of well-organized cabinets stuffed with buttons, semiprecious stones, chains and bits of metal crafted into creative shapes.
Lisa began learning the art of jewelry making at the age of 16, while still a student at Waterville High School. She found a job working at Jeffrey’s Fine Jewelers in Waterville, now a Day’s Jewelers. For the next two years, Lisa learned some of the basics — not officially an apprentice, but something akin to it.
“I learned how to string pearls with silk thread the old-fashioned way. I learned the real way to repair a necklace,” she said. “And eventually, I learned basic metalsmithing and how to do hot work. It was the best job someone like me could have had in high school.”
A teacher encouraged her to apply to Rhode Island School of Design, where she was accepted and attended in the late 1990s.
“I knew right off the bat I wanted to study jewelry design and metalsmithing, though I was really into blowing glass, as well,” she said.
While there, she studied under renowned German jewelry designer Martina Windels, who operated a high-end gallery in Providence, at which Lisa worked for several years after she graduated. She also worked with acclaimed designer Sam Shaw, who now runs a fine jewelry store in Northeast Harbor. By the time she graduated, she had gone from the most basic of skills to working with nickel silver, a notoriously difficult metal to use.
Lisa returned to Maine in 2005 having burned out trying to make a living making jewelry and looking for a more stable life. She went to the University of Southern Maine and earned a teaching degree, married her husband, John, and taught art in the Waterville area for three years. Eventually, she stopped teaching and devoted herself to her now 5-year-old daughter, Annabelle. After a year and a half of being a stay at home mom, however, the creative bug just wouldn’t stop biting.
“I needed to create again,” she said. “It was driving me crazy not to.”
That’s where Quench Metalworks began. Early on in 2008, Lisa was making felt playthings for Annabelle and wanted some embellishments for them. She found some old buttons stashed away by older family members, and was struck by how lustrous and beautiful the decades-old mother-of-pearl buttons were.
“That proverbial light bulb lit up in my head,” said Lisa. “What if I set this in a ring? Or this in a brooch? I decided to get my studio in working order again. I just knew that these buttons would translate into jewelry focals wonderfully.”
Lisa’s first piece was a simple pair of drop earrings with plain mother of pearl buttons. Her next piece was a rectangle pendant that framed two buttons. Both sold to friends. She kept making more, and in September 2008 opened her online Etsy shop. She’s since displayed her work at craft fairs and trunk shows all over the state, including a display at the Bangor Symphony Orchestra’s season-closing concert last May, which featured a small marketplace showcasing recycled goods.
The buttons Lisa works with come from a variety of sources. Some are those buttons she salvaged from her family, others she finds in vintage shops. Some are buttons that her growing fan base has given to her, especially older women with a surplus of sewing accessories at their fingertips.
“I’ve had people find my stuff online, or I’ll be at a show, and they’ll say, ‘I remember those buttons from a long time ago,’” Lisa said. “They’ll have huge collections of leftover buttons from years and years ago. People didn’t throw things away back then. They would save old buttons. We tend to throw things away nowadays. Customers bring my buttons now. I’ve got a seemingly never-ending supply.”
Quench appeals to a broad array of people, which is one of the reasons Lisa has found success is making and marketing her wearable art. It’s different enough to be hip, but its vintage, classic look makes it timeless.
“I really love that everyone from a 75-year-old woman in Texas to a young New York hipster likes my stuff,” she said. “It’s very contemporary, but it also is a throwback to another time. I think that’s why people like it.”
Quench Metalworks will be at the Artisan Trunk Show at Higher Grounds in Hallowell 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 21, and at the Creatorium Holiday Craft Show at Lincoln Street Center for Arts and Education in Rockland 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 4. For information, visit www.quenchmetalworks.com.