Ashes to pendant

May 01 2019 | 01:00 AM

    Mourning her dog, an artist opens his urn

    By Melissa Shaw-Smith

    When Jennifern Hippely lost her beloved dog Dervish a few years ago, “It left this gigantic hole,” she said. “For months I would be at the sink and step sideways to go around him but he wasn’t back there anymore.”

    When a bear tried to break into her house, Dervish had protected her. When she was going through tough times, he was a constant companion. A multidisciplinary artist, her response to his loss was to make a piece of jewelry of him. “And that’s how I got into silver smithing.”

    “Fern,” as she’s known to her friends, has a dreamer’s soul soldered to a DIY attitude inherited from her parents. Her first memory of her mother is with a miter saw in her hands. From her father she acquired a head for business. At the age of nine, her dad rented her space in the back of his pickup truck for an iced tea stand, charging her the cost of supplies, and making sure she doubled her sales price to make a profit.

    In 2014, Hippely left a corporate marketing job and moved to Warwick with her pets, husband and infant son. While the baby slept she researched ideas for setting up a home-based art business, feeling sure she could combine her artistic talents – honed since childhood – with her corporate skills.

    After Hippely made the simple silver cutout of Dervish, she began teaching herself silver smithing for real. “If I have a concept, seeing how to make that concept work has always been my thing,” she says. Late at night, she watched You Tube videos and practiced the craft. If she could make something that people responded to, she’d have a product. Again, Dervish inspired her. She used her graphic design skills to create a more sophisticated pendant of him etched in silver. Hippely had discovered a whole new product line: Pet portraits. Finding a creative way to help others deal with their mourning gave her an added reward.

    A few years after Dervish’s death, Hippely plucked up the courage to open his urn. She had the idea of making a piece of jewelry incorporating a small amount of his ashes, a kind of touchstone. She mixed ash with resin and embedded it into a bezel set into his portrait. It still didn’t have the beauty that captured the relationship she’d had with her dog. She wasn’t quite there yet.

    Hippely had long harbored a dream of building a supportive community of artists, sharing skills and business acumen. What if she could work with a fellow artist to create the image she had in mind? At a two-day Makers Market in Warwick in 2016, her booth was opposite that of glass artists Chate McCormick and Joe Catanzaro, whose Whenhouse Glass studio is out in the black dirt of Pine Island. Admirers of each other’s work, the artists had bonded over the trials of their recently launched businesses.

    Hippely thought of Chate’s colored glass pendants. Could Chate make a pendant and embed a little of Dervish’s ashes in it? Hippely had looked online for similar products and had found a few, but they were cheaply made or else too obvious. She wanted the piece to be subtle enough that she could choose whether to tell a stranger who admired the necklace that it contained the remains of her dog.

    Chate was unfazed by the request. She and Catanzaro have fielded questions about incorporating remains into glass since they first started Whenhouse. “I swirled the ash in the glass, and then I experimented with a couple of different colors to come up with a bunch of possibilities,” said McCormick, making it sound deceptively easy.

    Hippely burst into tears when she first held the experimental gems. “They looked like nebulous clouds of rainbow and gas. It was a symbol of him with something tangible inside.” She had a hunch that others would respond the same way. “I’m not the only one who loves her animal this much.”

    With help from her partner Dav Walker, she set about developing the idea into a business: Gates and Bridge.

    It was their son Julian who gave Hippely the concept. Playing with the gems one day, he described them as ‘portals to other worlds.’ “The necklace is like you’re opening a gate or crossing a bridge to connect with the beloved,” Hippely says.

    Chate embraced the challenge of learning a new technique to make the memorial jewelry, and hours of practice to sculpt a pendant small enough to wear unobtrusively around the neck. Hippely asked Chate to come up with designs that would represent Heaven, galaxies, the aurora borealis, and water–– celestial themes.

    Soon McCormick was able to make a consistent gem, and Hippely took Gates and Bridge online, carefully thinking through every step of the ordering process from the customer’s point-of-view. “It’s such an emotional thing, everything has to be treated differently than any other piece of jewelry.” Hippely supplies the care package to the customer with everything needed to easily return a small amount of ash to Gates and Bridge. Once the package arrives, Chate goes to work.

    She encases the ash in a tube of clear glass to protect it from the flame, pulling it into a fine thread that will become part of the design. She works with dexterity, heating the glass in the flame of her torch, then sculpting and molding it. To create an orb design, she makes a clear glass cone and working from the back of the gem builds it up in layers. The glass-encased ash is swirled in first, then a layer of pale blue glass, followed by tiny specks of pure silver to represent the stars, and then a layer of dark glass. The finished, cooled gem is transparent when held up to the light—a portal to another world.

    From Pine Island, the memorial gem comes back to Hippely’s Warwick studio where she sets it into a pure silver bezel with a sturdier sterling silver chain, deliberately keeping it very simple. “I want the gem to really shine,” she says.

    Recently, McCormick and Hippely created five memorial pendants for the same family, containing their human loved ones shared ashes. Hippely’s hunch is confirmed by her customers; these beautiful memorial gems become part of the healing process.