There doesn’t seem to have been a time in the life of Jeni Benos when she wasn’t shaping horses out of whatever material was handy – clay, metal, wire. “I’ve always been 3-D inclined,” states the 30-something lady, who has built an intriguing jewelry business with an international clientele. She worked on a horse farm during her teen years and designed her first product, the Zodiac Ponies, around age of 21. Jeni approached a local tack shop to carry them, and when they started to sell, she made more and traveled to tack shops all over New England, then the East Coast and points West, as her business and product line expanded.
In the spring of 2009, Jeni relocated her business to Giles County, where she has purchased property and designed her studio and a barn. Once the fencing and interior stalls are complete, she plans to have her own horse, fulfilling a life long dream. But getting to the New River Valley and building her business have taken much work, innovation, perseverance and dedication.
Jeni Benos attended The School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for a while. “I got the skills I needed,” she smiles. Working for a high-end jeweler proved to be a great experience for this quiet, naturally-introverted, young woman because it laid the foundation for understanding the sales component of a business. She also earned some Gemological Institute of America certifications. Along the way her determined, independent style propelled her to design her own website. “I took a class in website design at Mass Art in Boston, along with lessons from a professional,” she recalls. “It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. I really enjoyed it at times and came close to throwing the computer out the window at others. Technology does not come naturally to me, but it was worth the effort. An artist needs to constantly expand on creative abilities and technical knowledge.” Not long ago, she took a welding class at New River Community College to add to her skill set.
Jeni started her business, Jenuinely Jeni Inc., in 2004, when she was 22. Three years later, her seamless, hollow filigree, Guinevere horse necklace was awarded the American Equestrian Trade Association Innovation Award. “This was at a wholesale trade show for the equestrian industry,” she explains, “and Guinevere was up against all of the major manufacturers in the equestrian industry in a category which included horse artwork, home decor and accessories. It was quite an honor.”
An avid and accomplished shooter, Jeni always saved her bullet shell casings figuring she’d do something with them one day. That day came when she was exasperated with a very tedious custom project. “I got the idea to make a flower out of a shell casing at a point where I really needed a break,” she explains. “I decided to make a petal for a friend. After that first one, I was inspired to create several more styles. Some have genuine gemstones on the ends of the stamen, and others have more elaborate wire work. I even made a few formed vases from larger shells, holding bouquets of Pistol Petals. I applied for and was eventually granted a U.S. patent.”
Until this point, Jeni’s jewelry line had been solely horse-related. Once the Pistol Petals started selling, she began attending guns shows. “Since then, I have continued to expand the gun-related line in a number of directions with my Primer Collection, Artillery Petals and custom work. I also craft sculptures and jewelry with shell casings from military honors and special occasions.”
In the machine shop section of her studio, Jeni uses a 20th century antique B.C. Ames lathe. “My grandfather was a tool and die maker, and he made a living using this machine. He would be proud that I am able to do the same. I really admired his mechanical abilities, and he even crafted a full set of collets for the lathe.” When Jeni inherited it, the lathe was in a couple of pieces, and no one knew how to put it together until she met an old machinist who worked for a competitor of B.C. Ames. He was able to get it assembled and running again. Working to various degrees of precision on this piece of equipment makes this silversmith and metalsmith fully appreciate the technical expertise of machinists like her grandfather. Since she crafts components and findings with precision sometimes up to 100th of a millimeter, one could say with certainty that she inherited her fine machining and precision skills from the man who once operated this B.C. Ames lathe.
Jeni has often worked seven days a week and more than 12 hours per day to maintain her business. Nowadays, she’s quick to say how much she enjoys living in the peaceful setting of Giles County where she can pursue all of her artistic endeavors. And, have a real horse. Soon.
Text by Joanne M. Anderson