Supernova-hot Celebrities

She’s a gem

The art of jewelry maker Francesca Lacagnina

Francesca_hr2Francesca Lacagnina’s jewelry is easy to appreciate. Her earrings, necklaces, bracelets, and rings are rich, opulent, highly textured, and, often representational. But each individual piece is subtle, like a character in Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, with layers that peel back and shape-shift and surprise you.

For example, her cuffs are two-inch wide bracelets that inevitably remind a barbarian like me of a gladiator’s wrist armor, or perhaps even Wonder Woman’s jewelry. Then you realize the reference isn’t merely a subtle joke, because one source of Francesca’s inspiration is the ancient world of the Mediterranean, where she grew up.

Then you have to notice the tactile beauty of the designs, each of them different and exotic. Your historical references tempt you to think smooth leather, pigskin, and woven straw. In fact, these are new world, contemporary textures, sea urchin, coral, and cholla—the evil plant of our southwestern deserts that jumps out and grabs you.

cholla cuff Screen Shot 2015-05-09 at 2.51.50 PMScreen Shot 2015-05-09 at 2.52.09 PM






To complete the circle, there’s the weight of these cuffs on a woman’s wrist, a reminder of the standard unit of value and independence (or lack of it) in antiquity.

Her other pieces—earrings and necklaces, etc.—are no less wonderful. You can see for yourself at I want to move on to my real subject, which is Francesca herself and how she came to bring all this beauty into the world.

Her father was Italian and a journalist, so Francesca’s life began in Livorno. The Lacagninas moved around quite a bit—to Kefesia, Greece; Cairo; Beirut; and Rome—in ten short years. When her parents divorced, Francesca found herself, with her mother and younger sister, in San Francisco “at the height of Haight-Ashbury.” Imagine the transition from che bellezza to like wow, man.

She graduated UC Santa Cruz with a degree in Photography and Aesthetic Studies. Francesca recalls, “I had no idea what I’d do with my degree. I always thought of myself as a fine art photographer and I just figured I’d get jobs to support myself. I don’t know how I thought I would do it.”

Somehow, it all worked out.

In the late 1980s, Francesca’s work creating photo-collages out of multiple images caught the eye of a graphic designer. Remember, this was pre-Photoshop. She got a commission to illustrate a book of Gertrude Stein quotations relating to money; the book attracted widespread attention and, before she knew it, Francesca and her then-husband and fellow photographer, Alan Abrams were a commercial success. They shot covers for Time and Newsweek; illustrated Microsoft’s annual report; and created a major ad campaign for the Sci-Fi Channel, using sets they built in a huge Hollywood studio.

Francesca and Alan’s business rode the wave of the ‘90s. But when the dotcom bubble burst, it took the assignment photography industry with it. Francesca’s interest in commercial work was fading anyway. And then a series of tragedies struck. Both her parents died; her sister was murdered; and she and Alan divorced in within a short of period time.

It was devastating emotionally. But in the midst of adversity was a spark of inspiration. Says Francesca, “Just before my mother died she handed me the family jewelry. She was saying goodbye to me and she said, ‘I want you to wear one of these rings.’ They had been passed down from my great-great grandmother. I’ll never forget the feeling I had when I put those rings on.”

Screen Shot 2015-05-09 at 3.27.39 PMFrancesca started with beadwork, then grew fascinated with gem stones. She began taking jewelry-making classes, where she found her way into lost wax. That’s the ancient technique where the artist designs the piece in wax, then surrounds it with a heat-resistant mold. Molten gold or silver goes in, melting and forcing out the wax. When the metal cools, the artist breaks the mold and finishes the piece of jewelry.

Today, Francesca maintains a part-time job to support her art addiction. As with any small business, cash flow is an issue. “Jewelry making takes a lot of capital—especially given the price of gold,” says Francesca. “The business end takes a lot of work. I just do it because I love it.”

Her dedication is paying off. Her long-time gallery Essenza will be featuring more of her work in their new store Liten, which focuses on artisan jewelry. She also shown at Patina Gallery and The Golden Eye in Santa Fe, as well as A Mano in Seattle. Francesca’s jewelry has also adorned “brides-to-be” in photo shoots for magazines—most notably on the cover of Seattle Bride.

When free to do what she loves, Francesca travels to places that inspire her, bringing along her jewelry waxes. “In Hawaii I took impressions of volcanic rocks, seeds, and even tree trunks. Santa Fe is another big inspiration. It’s very elemental—the earth and rocks—plus I love seeing all the native jewelry. People wear BIG pieces of jewelry there.”

Francesca’s dream is to be able to do more of that. “Travelling the world collecting textures from all over. Taking impressions from wherever I am and making jewelry from them.”

Will that ever happen? Francesca doesn’t know. Jewelry is a competitive business. She’s been through a lot and, like all of us, doesn’t have the energy she had when she was younger. Still she persists: “I feel blessed to have achieved what I have,” she says.

And that’s why Francesca Lacagnina is Mickey Z’s very first Supernova-hot Celebrity.