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PR exec finds success marketing handmade jewelry

Jackson — Soon after graduating from college, Liliclaire “Lil” McKinnon-Hicks knew she was entrepreneurial at heart.

But it took several years working in non-profit and corporate environments before she took a leap of faith to start her own business, and several years after that before she decided to market her artistic talents.

“When we’re very young, we have different expectations,” said McKinnon-Hicks, owner of Jackson-based Lionheart Public Relations and McKinnon Heartcraft jewelry designs. “I remember working at the Mississippi Museum of Art (MMA) when my 25th birthday came along. I was terribly disappointed that I didn’t have my own business yet. I don’t know why I envisioned it so soon, but thank goodness I waited a few years.”

After earning journalism and psychology degrees from the University of Mississippi in 1985, McKinnon-Hicks returned home to Tampa, Fla., but was drawn back to the Magnolia State when her aunt told her about a plum job opening in Jackson. For three years, she was director of pubic relations and marketing for MMA, and then joined the advertising agency Spruill & Spruill Inc., as media and public relations director for two years.

McKinnon-Hicks was rolling into her second year as KPMG Peat Marwick’s first marketing and public relations director when she realized it was time to make a change.

“Murray Underwood and the folks there were wonderful, but it was such a different and structured corporate environment,” she said. “It helped crystallize it was time for Lil to make a change.”

At the age of 29, McKinnon-Hicks opened Lionheart Public Relations, naming the firm after a pet name given to her by her husband, Steven.

“I liked the imagery of it,” she said. “Plus, I’d been very involved collecting lions, and must have 75 or 80 now, and it just fit.”

Her public relations client list grew quickly to include Alpha Delta Pi Sorority, American Medical Response, Ameristar Casino, Cress Realty Group, Eaton Aerospace, Mississippi Commission for International Cultural Exchange, Mississippi Tennis Association, Tougaloo College and Union Planters Bank.

Within a few years, McKinnon-Hicks was recognized regionally and nationally for her work. In 1997, she was named an Outstanding Young Woman in America.

She was selected one of Mississippi’s Top 40 Under 40 in 1999 and Mississippi’s 50 Leading Business Women in 2000.
She received the Accredited Public Relations Professional designation in 1992, and a Senior Practitioner designation from the Southern Public Relations Federation in 2000.

Dabbling then discovery

In 2002, after years of dabbling in pottery and painting — her husband called her “an artist in search of a medium” — a neighbor invited McKinnon-Hicks to a jewelry trunk show, with pieces produced by an artisan from out West.

“There were such beautiful and fascinating pieces with gorgeous colors and textures,” she said. “I liked the size and scale of the artwork and the diminutive detail. It clicked and I wanted to try creating my own.”

After the show, McKinnon-Hicks wanted to learn more about jewelry design. She took a jewelry-making class at Village Beads, crafting a necklace and earrings she later stashed in a drawer. She joined the Tougaloo Art Colony for a weeklong session with jewelry artist Ken Bova, who taught her hand tool-based processes such as sawing, drilling and piercing through cold-connection or “soft” techniques in metalworking.

“I walked in with no clue about how the process worked,” recalled McKinnon-Hicks, with a laugh. “The school sent us a supply list before classes began and on it was an anvil. All I could picture was Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner and a 50-pound anvil, so I went to Home Depot and had an interesting conversation with the associates there. Of course, they couldn’t help me. And then I saw that a jewelry anvil is two inches long and two inches tall. It was one of those fun ‘aha’ moments.”

Selling herself

Ironically, the most challenging part of moving her jewelry design business from concept to market was selling herself.

“I’d always marketed my clients, and that you go forth and do with a vengeance,” she said. “Sitting down and selling yourself in the same way is a bit more difficult. I found it uncomfortable. Going forth and making cold calls on boutiques and shops after sending letters of introduction was difficult. The first time I introduced myself on the phone as a jewelry artist, I had to swallow hard, because that was not how I was used to identifying myself. It struck me as very funny and I wondered why it was a stumbling block. That was really a surprise to me.”

Since establishing McKinnon Heartcraft in 2003, she has sold several hundred pieces of jewelry through various venues, including private trunk shows and Junior League-hosted events. Her jewelry is merchandised at the Inside Story in Madison and Fondren Traders in Jackson, and she is negotiating with New Orleans shop owners for retail space.

Small silver earrings with dangling pearls are among the most popular pieces sold.

“Women will buy earrings as a fun happy for themselves, even though the price difference between earrings and bracelets is not much,” she said. “Somehow, a bracelet represents more of a commitment.”

McKinnon-Hicks, who is five feet-nine inches tall, prefers larger pieces of jewelry. She crafted one of her favorite pieces last summer, a sterling silver necklace pendant measuring four inches long and three inches wide.

“But it’s not a piece many people would buy,” she said. “For me, it worked.”

Her favorite Heartcraft collection, Affirmation Art, combines her love of wordsmith and jewelry design. “I’ve been encouraged to consider mass marketing because you can make more money doing it, but I have the same theory with creating jewelry as I do with my PR business,” she explained. “I like to be hands on. I grew Lionheart to a point where I could accommodate it without hiring staff. I don’t want to handle staff. If I mass market my jewelry, I would have to hire someone to assist me with production and I don’t want that. Part of the joy to me is having each piece unique, with every aspect handmade.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com.


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