Beads & Bracelets

Inside Amy Hammarlund’s studio, there’s a beautiful disorder.

A worktable is strewn with spools of jewelry wire, loops of beads and rulers for measuring, while brackets hold scissors, pliers and other implements. Across from it are shelves stacked with plastic bins, holding beads of every color and shape, while smaller tables offer groups of bold, chunky pendants.

It’s a place where you just want to settle in and play, dig your hands into the glittering beads, cradle polished stone pendants and gently position the strands and their ornaments—even model them in the wood-framed mirror adjacent to the crafter’s worktable.

Across town, Susan Senn-Davis’ studio is its orderly counterpoint—a treasure box of rich textures. Rope upon rope of beads in all colors and shapes hang neatly, completely filling one wall behind a work desk. On that desk, all the delicate fittings for jewelry making are properly stored in decorative containers, from Buddha’s heads to little pottery jars.

A subtle and rich backdrop of other statuary and framed prints underscore Senn-Davis’ interest in Asian themes, while boldly colored and brushed paintings describe her own artistic background. And everywhere are the necklaces, draped around a figure, on a dressmaker’s form, even adorning a sunlit window.

The two studios represent a yin and yang, daughter and mother, the two halves making up Senn Designs, which has been creating and selling beautifully crafted necklaces, bracelets and earrings in Augusta and beyond since 1996.


Beauty in the Smallest Things 

For mother Susan Senn-Davis, her interest in jewelry making began 30 years ago with a metal recycling plant in south Augusta.

It’s not as odd as it sounds. Senn-Davis is accustomed to finding beauty everywhere, from antique shops to yard sales. “I like rummaging and putting things together,” she says with a laugh.

But in truth, her design sensibility goes back even further than that. Senn-Davis graduated as an art major from Furman University (she’s the second of three generations of Senn women to be an alum), and taught the discipline at University of South Carolina Aiken as well as Augusta University. She also paints, and her various works adorn the walls of her home. And before jewelry, she dabbled in papermaking, even crafting greeting cards that were sold in local shops.

But back to that metal recycling plant. Senn-Davis just happened to be driving down Gordon Highway and stopped in as a lark. A box of discarded springs, coils and bolts caught her eye, and she bought a selection, the owner carefully measuring them and charging by weight. She turned the odd shapes into pins and brooches, before she began looking farther afield for inspiration. Beads and pendants came next—“and it just exploded,” she says. “I found a passion, and it was like, oh boy, this is it. I found something I loved.”

Soon friends and then strangers would stop her to say, “I like that necklace. Where did you get it?” It happened so often that she thought, “Maybe there’s something here.” She began exhibiting her jewelry at local and regional shows, including Arts in the Heart of Augusta and Aiken’s Makin. Then, with her heart in her mouth and her jewelry in her hands, Senn-Davis approached her first shop, Soho in Surrey Center.

That was a start. Now, two decades later, Senn Designs jewelry is found in boutiques in Augusta, Evans, Aiken, Columbus and Louisville, and is also sold at trunk shows that Senn-Davis and Hammarlund offer several times a year. While the look of the jewelry has changed over the years, Senn Designs continues to be known for bold designs and unique pieces that appeal to a wide range of ages.

That might have something to do with the fact that four generations of Senn women have been involved in the company. Before Hammarlund, Senn-Davis enlisted her own mother, also an artist and painter. “I used to put a card table here in the middle of this room with a chair, and we would sit here and work together—it was a bonding thing, definitely,” says Senn-Davis. “I taught her how to (make jewelry) and she caught the same bug I did.”

Meanwhile, Hammarlund was teaching 2nd grade at Martinez Elementary School. She has no art background at all, she says with a laugh, not like her mother and grandmother, but after her daughter Sophie was born prematurely, she gave up teaching. And after asking her mother to make a piece for her for the umpteenth time, one day Senn-Davis said, “Nope, but you can make it. I’ll teach you how.” And she’s been working with her mother ever since.

For years, it was the three women, until Senn-Davis’ 91-year-old mother decided, at last, it was time to retire. Now, Hammarlund is giving daughter Sophie the same lesson her mother gave her, teaching the now 13-year-old.


Two Halves

Hammarlund can almost always be seen with an armful of her own polished stone beaded bracelets. She loves making them, she says, loves seeing them stacked on her own arm and other people’s arms. She can string them 10 or 20 at a time and donates them to local fundraisers, including for the University Health Care Foundation for breast cancer and the Press On Foundation for childhood cancer. “They make people happy,” she says. “They bring me joy and they bring other people joy.”

Senn-Davis loves wearing them too. “They make me feel like Amy’s with me,” says her mother. “My bracelets make me feel closer to her.”

Hammarlund is an only child, and the mother and daughter have always been close. Although they each work in their own studios out of their homes, they see each other often. “We’re best friends for sure,” says Hammarlund. “We love to just hang out, get coffee together, go to lunch together. Family is very important for us.”

“When we’re not together, we’re texting all day,” says Senn-Davis.

“It’s so natural to us,” says Hammarlund. “It just seems (like) why isn’t everybody this close?”

And when it comes to making jewelry, “we both take criticism well,” says Senn-Davis. “And we do, we tell each other.”

They are alike in other ways too. The two are often mistaken for the other when talking on the telephone. And it always gets a laugh on Christmas mornings when they open their gifts to one another and find they’ve given each other nearly the same item. It’s happened with sweaters and other clothing and once a Coach handbag. Even their jewelry aesthetic is often very similar, although Hammarlund always credits her mother for her creativity and downplays her own.

Together the women craft thousands of Senn Designs originals every year. As she steps into her studio, Senn-Davis points out her workdesk and almost without being aware of it, stops to add a few more beads to a Southwestern-inspired necklace with dark beads that sits waiting, partially finished. While she has a ruler, she laughs as she points it out. “I’m a neck measurer,” she says, while Hammarlund with another laugh admits that she always uses a ruler to get the length just right.

Another difference? Senn-Davis likes to get up early and work through the morning, while Hammarlund as a busy mom of three seeks out the peace and quiet of her studio space in the later morning and in the dark of night once the children are all tucked into bed. Since she joined Senn Designs, Hammarlund has also taken over many of the administrative duties involved with the company, such as marketing and selling. “I love creating,” says Senn-Davis. “And I like to talk to people,” says Hammarlund. “She’s a good salesperson,” adds her mother.

A highlight of their year is their annual Mother’s Day trip to Franklin, N.C., to the Gem & Lapidary Wholesalers Trade Show. They wake up at the crack of dawn for the three and a half-hour drive into the North Carolina mountains and spend the day shopping for half a year’s worth of gemstones, pearls, beads and all the fittings to put jewelry together. Last year, they found a new vendor from Africa offering recycled glass beads in colors of earth and sky and bought as much as they could. Now, those beads are almost all gone. “We’re always on the lookout for anything unusual,” says Senn-Davs. Hammarlund adds, “We always make a little pact outside, ‘I promise we’re not going to buy one thing until we look around the whole show,’ but we’re not in there two seconds, we’ve already bought something.”

It’s a major buying process, and it can be overwhelming—but “it’s fun to us,” says Hammarlund. “We’re dead tired at the end of the day,” says Senn-Davis. “But it’s a good kind of tired,” adds her daughter.


Traditions of the Season

The Christmas season brings more traditions—evening service at Aldersgate Methodist Church, followed by Christmas Eve dinner and each grandchild opening just one gift each. Christmas day is more gifts, then brunch.

It’s also one of Senn Designs’ busiest times. There are trunk shows at Aldersgate, the Morris Museum of Art, the Columbus Museum of Art and Swank in Surrey Center, along with custom jewelry requests. “We’re busy up to the last minute,” says Senn-Davis.

Still, she makes the time for a personal tradition: 20 random acts of kindness. “Her holiday tradition is that she always does 20 things for other people,” says Hammarlund, everything from helping out at a local soup kitchen, giving blood or Senn-Davis’ personal favorite, buying a cup for coffee for someone in the line behind her at Starbucks.

Following her mother’s example, Hammarlund has her own version, giving away 20 of her favorite bracelets to random people as she goes about her day. “Jewelry really does make you happy,” says Hammarlund. “It’s a little tiny thing, but it can definitely brighten your day, cheer up a drab outfit…and it becomes meaningful.”

It might be surprising, but the mother and daughter also give each other jewelry as gifts “all the time,” says Senn-Davis. And, they glance at one another and laugh as they admit that they also very often keep items they originally made to be sold. Senn-Davis beckons me over, then slides open a drawer in her desk. Inside are hidden treasures, pendants of blue and white china, Asian porcelain, tiny framed stamps. Pearls and beads in colorful turquoise, black and white, red, silver and gold, some in bags, some on ropes, are everywhere. These are the items that inspire her, the ones she can’t bear to give away—a glorious riot of color and pattern. Hammarlund has a similar collection.

Inspiration can strike at anytime: from a special trip, at a yard sale, from a magazine—and from family. “I get so much inspiration from my mom,” says Hammarlund. “She’s always been so super creative. You are, mom,” she adds. “She inspires me more than anybody else.”


The Gift of Giving

Both Susan Senn-Davis and Amy Hammarlund love to give away jewelry. Senn Designs has even gifted its pieces to celebrities. Morning news host Hoda Kotb spoke to breast cancer survivors at a We Think Pink banquet sponsored by The Augusta Chronicle in 2011. Senn-Davis and Hammarlund were in the audience, and afterwards, Senn-Davis had the opportunity to meet Kotb. “I told her I admired her and had a piece of jewelry for her,” she says. “She was just tickled.”

During an earlier trip to New York City, Senn-Davis was in the crowd outside the Today show, holding a sign that said, “I have a present for Katie (Couric) and Ann (Curry).” During their break, the two anchors came over, and Senn-Davis gave them both necklaces.

“It’s fun to do,” says Senn-Davis. “I might say one day, whoever tells me that they like my necklace today will get it.” “I’ve seen her do that lots of times,” adds Hammarlund.

This article appears in the November-December 2016 issue of Augusta Magazine.

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