Mena Messina’s workbench, a door in a previous life, is designed so that she can stand while she works. The surface is littered with small bowls of gemstones, scraps of copper, silver and brass, broken jewelry, and objects that have caught her eye and may inspire her designs for a pendant or a pair of earrings. She often works with customers to repurpose their old jewelry and give it a new lease on life.
Today, she is walking me through the stages of making a tiny silver spoon, a gift for a new baby. Using a fine-toothed jeweler’s saw, she cuts a heart and a small disc out of sheet of sterling silver. Heating the disc to a glowing orange (a process called annealing) changes the chemical properties of the metal, softening it and making it malleable. Messina briefly pickles the disc in sulphuric acid to clean it before placing it in the curved receptacle of a dapping block. She hammers the disc to form the bowl of the spoon. Deftly, she bends a silver rod into the shape of a handle and solders the pieces together. Finally, she polishes the spoon to a warm sheen.
A natural teacher, Messina trained as a metalsmith in art school, and went on to earn a master’s in education. She spent several years working as an art therapist with special needs children, before concentrating on a successful career as a jewelry designer.
Messina shows me a stunning copper pendant she is packaging up to send to a customer. It uses a fold-form technique that involves heating and bending the metal, and then hammering its surface to give it texture. She calls the piece Mandarin Cloak and talks about how it reflects her family’s combined heritage—the metalsmithing skills of her Italian grandfather, and the Chinese culture of her daughters’ birth country. It also represents a long journey for Mena.
In 2009, Messina and her family experienced several major surgeries and health crises. This abruptly interrupted her work—including the making of the Mandarin Cloak pendant. Forced to rebuild her life and career, she tells how the healing power of art was truly brought home. With her eldest daughter, she drew, painted, and worked with clay. Once she felt strong enough, Messina pulled out the half-finished pendant. Her youngest daughter held the pieces steady while Mena hammered in the rivets, joining them together.
Messina’s husband, Gary Genetti, a glass blower and engraver, also works out of his studio at their home in Warwick. Their medical problems coincided with the downturn in the economy. Looking for ways to reach new customers, the couple created a Kickstarter campaign, taking broken windshield glass from a junkyard and upcycling it into home decor and a line of jewelry. Displaying a recycled glass necklace, she stresses the therapeutic effects that the project had on the whole family. Whether teaching jewelry-making workshops or working on a commission, now restored to health, Messina continues to draw healing from her art.