Jenny Benscher knew there was nothing she could do or say that would spare her sister, Jill Becker, the grief she was enduring and would continue to endure after the death of her 21-year-old daughter, Cara, from complications of leukemia in December 2012. A mother of three herself, Benscher realized there was no consolation for such a devastating loss. Yet, she wanted to find some way to express her love and support.
“I really wanted to do something for Jill, to let her know I loved her and was thinking of her,” said Benscher, 44, a Baltimore native who now lives in Orlando, Fla. “I had been making jewelry for a few years, just as a hobby. … I’ve always loved style. And when it comes to art, I’m all about textures, color and finding the intricacies that make something beautiful — finding the essence of things.”
Benscher credits their late mother, Gwen Becker (for whom Cara was named) for passing on to her a sense of simple elegance, which is reflected in the jewelry she makes.
Last summer, Benscher came across shagreen leather (stingray hide) and was intrigued.
“I just loved it. So I started playing around. And I liked the idea of the protective eye,” said Benscher, who noted that in some cultures the symbol — a large eye — is referred to as the evil eye. It is meant to ward off bad luck.
“I prefer to call it the protective eye,” she said.
Benscher set about creating a handmade cuff-style bracelet made of orange (Cara’s favorite color) shagreen leather, embellished with a protective eye and lined with lambskin. When she visited Baltimore in August, she gave it to Becker, a Pikesville resident.
“I was sad and depressed,” recalled Becker, 49, tearfully. “She [Jenny] said she wanted the cuff to give me protection and love and to let me know she was always with me.”
Soon, said the sisters, Becker’s friends were asking where they could buy their own cuffs. When she learned of an upcoming fundraiser for the Tyanna Foundation, an organization that raises money for breast cancer awareness and prevention, Becker decided to purchase a booth where her sister could sell the cuffs.
“I called Jenny and said, ‘You have three weeks to make as many cuffs as you can.’ We sold thousands of dollars’ worth of cuffs. Almost everything was gone.”
Becker and Benscher realized they were on to something. Although neither had done so before, they decided to start a business together. With Benscher on the creative side and Becker handling sales and marketing, they founded the business, Lema J, in September 2013. The company’s name stands for love, empowerment, motion, adventure and Jill and Jenny.
Becker knew she wanted to put some of the proceeds from Lema J’s sales into Karma for Cara, the foundation Cara and her parents started while she was undergoing treatment for leukemia. The foundation has a three-fold mission, Becker said: engaging youth; giving tangible help to leukemia patients; and awarding unsung heroes.
Becker stressed that Cara, an avid volunteer, was passionate about all of these causes.
So far, said Becker, starting Lema J has been a “magical ride.”
“I’ve been married to a venture capitalist for 25 years. You’d think I’d be able to run a business just by osmosis, but no. My husband, [Eric Becker, founder and senior managing partner at Sterling Partners of Baltimore] has been giving me so much help. With his expertise, he’s been guiding me. And he’s having fun calling me ‘the newest Becker entrepreneur,’” she said.
The business has also provided Becker with a much-needed distraction from her grief.
“It has put me back in motion. I’m using my mind, learning so much, reaching out to everyone I know… I’m just breathing, eating and sleeping cuffs,” said Becker.
Lema J has also been transformational for Benscher, who is newly divorced and struggling to start a new life for herself and her children.
“After my divorce … I had to start over. I tried real estate, but I felt like a fish out of water. It just wasn’t me. This feels right,” she said, adding that it is never too late to start over.
Although they just launched this fall, Lema J cuffs are already being sold in boutiques across the nation. They have 10 employees including operations manager Pam Gillen, Becker’s longtime co-chair for Kennedy Krieger Institute’s annual ROAR for Autism event who Becker calls “the glue. She is really amazing.”
Benscher is in the process of training a group of young artists who will be helping to produce the cuffs.
“Each cuff is handmade, and it takes days to make,” she emphasized.
There are plans to expand the company’s offerings to other types of jewelry and leather products. The sisters also held a trunk show on Dec. 12, where they presented the Lema J collection at Ruth Shaw, an upscale boutique in The Village of Cross Keys.
“All of the ingredients just came together,” said Benscher. “Jill is working through her sadness. She’s not hiding behind this. But it’s a beautiful thing that’s helping her and others. That’s really what the whole company is about — love, compassion, reaching out and giving back.”
Simone Ellin is JT senior features reporter