CORRECTION: The Mississippi Development Authority is the correct agency that commissioned cuff links from Lil McKH Jewelry. This is a corrected version of the story. We apologize for the mistake.
Torch in hand, Lil McKinnon-Hicks bends thin silver cords into earring wires. She drips metal until it forms a small ball. She hammers out bracelets and solders two metals to create necklace pendants.
Silversmith McKinnon-Hicks, 48, is in a black apron wearing a pair of dangling earrings that mimic a French Quarter balcony's ironworks. She rents a workshop on the second floor of Hal & Mal's in a space that was an old liquor storeroom. Part showroom, part office, part science lab, this is the base of operations for Lil McKH Jewelry. She set up her alchemist's dream here three years ago. To get up there, you have to ride an antique freight elevator with wooden gates.
She became a silversmith seven years ago. Before that, McKinnon-Hicks worked in advertising. As a freelance public-relations and marketing professional with 20 years experience, she worked—among other projects—on Mississippi Commission for International Cultural Exchange shows. She helped promote three of its big Mississippi Arts Pavilion exhibitions in Jackson, including the last one in 2004: "The Glory of Baroque Dresden." It was exhausting work.
"I needed a break," she says.
She wanted to treat herself by taking an art class. She intended to sign up for pottery at the Tougaloo Art Colony, but the pottery class was full. A beginning silversmithing class was open, though. The appeal to her was unexpected and sudden.
"I saw hammers, metal, tools—it was stuff I had never done," McKinnon-Hicks says. "It just lit me up."
Ken Bova, a Greeneville, N.C., jeweler, taught that class. "He just opened a door for me," she says. Bova encouraged her to continue learning. He told her to find the local gem and mineral society. She found them and discovered the hobbyists taught free workshops.
McKinnon-Hicks keeps learning and experimenting. She likes to place stones and pieces of metal on the table and rearrange them until inspiration suggests a new piece of jewelry. She keeps little plastic bags of different colored stone combinations. Scraps of copper fill dozens of small, empty round wooden Brie boxes. Brown paper accordion files sort silver wire by gauges and sheets of silver and copper by thickness. When inspiration strikes, she pulls out a bag or a box or a file and arranges pieces of metal and stone.
Most of the jewelry McKinnon-Hicks creates now is custom work. Through word of mouth, customers come to her with sentimental ideas. Broken jewelry and forgotten heirlooms become new pieces of wearable art. Coins, cameos and river rocks turn into special gifts.
McKinnon-Hicks attends five or six art festivals every year to sell her jewelry under a tent. It's not her usual mode of operation. Most weeks have a predictable pattern for the 1985 University of Mississippi graduate, who married Steven Wells Hicks 21 years ago. Mondays, she usually stays at their north Jackson home to focus on business paperwork. Tuesdays through Saturdays, she hammers and enamels in the workshop.
Lil McKH catalog jewelry—the pieces she sells online, in stores and at festivals—sells from $25 to $350. She watches silver prices daily. They've doubled over the past year.
"I can't raise my prices that much," she says.
McKinnon-Hicks is marketing her work in new ways. She's introduced delicate keepsake jewelry for baby girls. She's developed "girlfriend gifts" that contain a positive word, such as "Believe," on a card with a simple necklace. She's brainstorming high-end pearl necklaces with striking cloisonné pendants. The cloisonné is a new skill.
Earlier this year, McKinnon-Hicks took an advanced workshop at William Holland School of Lapidary Arts in Young Harris, Ga., with a $500 grant from the Mississippi Arts Commission. For one week, she studied enameling with artist Christiana Tagliapietria of Ontario, Canada. McKinnon-Hicks, who already creates enameled jewelry by cooking powdered glass in patterns on metal in a 1,600-degree kiln, says she learned in Georgia a more detail-oriented enameling that is almost a lost art, including cloisonné techniques.
When she got back to Jackson, she applied her new skills. She had already made several blue-enameled guitar pendants shaped like B.B. King's famous guitar, Lucille. A white Highway 61 sign was on each one. These were intended as gifts from the Mississippi Development Authority to each honoree at the "Mississippi's Celebration of its Grammy Legacy" event June 7 in Biloxi. Just back from the class in Georgia, McKinnon-Hicks created a special pair of cloisonné cuff links for B.B. King with lines of silver outlining the highway sign. MDA was pleased.
"They called back," she says. "They wanted a pair of cuff links for all the artists."