by Nancy E. McCarthy
The Covid-19 pandemic presented challenges for Syracuse metalsmith Dana Stenson in 2020. Like many entrepreneurs, Stenson had to re-imagine how she ran her small business. Typically she sold her jewelry at fine craft shows and through galleries but cancelled shows and gallery closures required an increased online presence. Thankfully, her devoted customers kept following her work virtually and buying. Yes, her livelihood was at stake but it was more than that. One collector remarked that Stenson’s creations were what she most looked forward to during those dark days of isolation.
“Jewelry makes people happy,” says Stenson, who was deeply touched by the remark. She’s a joyful, hands-on maker who spreads happiness one necklace, ring, brooch, or bracelet at a time.
Case in point: This past summer, Christina Essig of Syracuse purchased a pendant featuring an oval turquoise stone that quickly became a favorite. “When I wear this piece, I can’t help but smile,” says Essig, who considers her growing collection of Stenson’s jewelry to be wearable art.
Stenson, formerly in the human services field, switched to full-time jewelry making in 2007. After taking several courses in the jewelry and metalsmithing program at Syracuse University (SU), her casual interest became her new occupation. “I started selling my jewelry soon after starting to make it, because it’s an expensive hobby and I needed to sell my work in order to afford my hobby,” she laughs.
Hand-fabrication in metal is Stenson’s specialty. Her go-to metal is sterling silver because of its versatility. Stenson pairs the silver with high quality, hand-cut gemstones sourced from lapidary artists. “There are literally hundreds of different varieties,” she explains. Most of her creations are one-of-a-kind statement pieces, though some earrings are made in multiples and offered at a lower price range.
“Dana’s work is not only beautiful, but her attention to detail, craftsmanship, and choice of stones elevates her work above others,” says Essig. “Her work is lively, elegant, and has a timeless beauty.”
Stenson was born in Iran to American parents in 1971. Being the daughter of a CIA agent set the stage for an unusual and adventurous childhood; the family also lived in Budapest, Hungary, and Northern Virginia. Stenson attended college in Prescott, Ariz., and moved to Syracuse in 2004, where her husband worked as a professor at SU. While no longer married, Stenson stayed in Syracuse and has two grown sons.
“I love exploring natural themes in my work and I also find inspiration from my travels,” she says.
The metalsmith has been to Mexico several times and is fascinated with the culture – especially the colorful, ritualistic Day of the Dead holiday and the vibrant legacy of celebrated Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Stenson read a Kahlo biography when recovering from a surgery and was inspired by Kahlo’s determination to live an artistic and passionate life despite extreme physical and emotional pain. Stenson has since visited many sites related to Kahlo, including both of her homes.
One of Stenson’s jewelry collections, the popular “Frida” series, features replicas of sugar skulls as a design element. Traditional sugar skulls (small, decorated, sparkly, and, yes, made with confections) are laid on graves to celebrate the lives of departed souls during Day of the Dead. Stenson’s skulls are fashioned from metal infused with color by the stones she selects for each piece.
Time spent in Arizona has also influenced some of her designs – such as a series inspired by desert poppy flowers. “I really fell in love with the desert when I lived there,” Stenson explains. “Certain times of year the orange poppy flowers would bloom and cover entire hillsides.”
The first jewelry class that Stenson took in 2007 was “Not Your Grandma’s Locket,” taught by Lori Hawke-Ramin. The students learned several techniques, including handmade hinge mechanisms. Stenson still makes lockets that explore the personal meaning behind ancestral history. “The pieces are very time consuming, so I’m not able to make a lot of them, but I do feel they are some of my best work,” she says. Some of these stunning lockets are featured in compilation books such as Showcase 500 Art Necklaces and Narrative Jewelry: Tales from the Toolbox.
Before the COVID-19 restrictions, Stenson participated in multiple fine craft shows, primarily in the Finger Lakes and other upstate regions of New York. Though no 2021 shows are officially scheduled, she hopes to participate in the Allentown Art Festival in Buffalo in June and the Clothesline Festival in September and Fine Craft Show & Sale in November, both hosted by the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester. Stenson’s work has been represented at Gallery 54 in Skaneateles, Artizanns in Naples, during periodic Edgewood Gallery exhibits in Syracuse, and through trunk shows in Buffalo at Wild Things. Many of the galleries have reopened.
Artist cooperative Gallery 54 is Stenson’s biggest retail location and she is a top seller according to fellow Syracuse jeweler/metalsmith Donna Smith. “Dana has gathered a large following of customers who buy and collect her work,” says Smith. “People who are new to the gallery always seem to be drawn to her jewelry case and the jewels inside. She sources the most beautiful, unique gemstones and lets them guide her toward what will become the final design in her metalwork.”
Stenson, who has a studio in the Delevan Center in downtown Syracuse, loves the creative process of making jewelry – especially the physicality of hand-fabricating metal and selecting interesting and unusual gemstones. High on her long list of favorites are American turquoise, agate, jasper, topaz, and tourmaline. About 30% of her work is commissioned custom items and the rest are her own creations.
“I am never bored,” she says. “There’s always something new to learn or try.” Stenson resists the temptation keep a lot of pieces for herself. “I’m happy to send them out into the world.”
After all, that’s the joy of jewelry.
Making a Poppy Pendant
Stenson’s poppy pieces usually start with a gemstone that reminds her of the flowers in the desert landscape. She sketches a design using the shape of the chosen stone. A bezel wire is formed to surround the stone.
Poppy embellishments are created with a circle cutter tool that stamps shapes from the metal in different sizes. The flowers are textured to create the illusion of petals, a center dot is soldered in place, and the edges of the flowers are carved using files. A real leaf is used to imprint leaves using a rolling mill that presses textures into a sheet of metal. The leaves are cut out using a jeweler’s saw and then filed.
The bezel, flowers, and leaves are soldered to a larger base plate using a torch and silver solder. Stenson uses a jeweler’s saw to cut the final shape of the pendant, and the edges are all filed, sanded, and polished. The chain is made and attached to the pendant. After an oxidizing solution darkens the entire piece, parts are selectively polished, leaving some dark areas to create depth and contrast.
Once the stone is set in place, final polishing takes out any tiny scratches and brightens the metal.