The Tennessean - Aw, Gee, let's call it what it is - a love story.

The Tennessean – February 14, 1996, Nashville, Tennessee

Aw, Gee, let's call it what it is - a love story.

What first began as a simple, private gesture of love two years ago between local registered nurse Jean Schnaak and her airline pilot husband, Neil, has now become a line of jewelry for family, friends and lovers to do the same anytime, anywhere.

Stumped for an idea of what to get her husband of 12 years for Valentine’s Day 1994, Jean came up with an idea to express her love privately, and in a way that would be renewed every day.

In his line of work she knew Neil couldn’t wear much in the way of jewelry, but could wear a simple pin on the inside of his suit jacket. Jean searched for such a piece to no avail. Frustrated, she finally gave up - and manufactured a pin of her own by snipping the back from a heart-shaped, silver earring.

“When she gave it to me, she told me, ‘I know you don’t wear much in the way of jewelry’ and I don’t,” said Neil Schnaak, remembering that day two years ago. “I have one of those plastic Timex watches and my gold wedding band. If I can hold on to a pen for more than two weeks, it’s considered a miracle.”

When Jean gave Neil the pin, she explained its significance, telling him she hoped he would be reminded of their love every time he saw or felt the pin on the inside of his jacket, a physical symbol of her heart next to his.

“It really works,” Neil said. “Whether I’m flying or whether I’m just wearing the jacket at work and take it off, it’s there. I look a it and just kind of smile. No one else knows what’s going on.”

The idea of creating similar jewelry for others to give their loved ones then began simmering in Jean’s mind. Her motivation grew after learning in December 1994 her father had pancreatic cancer. “I really hurried to get the pins made in time for this Christmas so I could give him his,” Jean said. “I wanted him to be able to be buried with his on.”

As a nurse, Jean had no experience in developing and marketing a product for retail sale, so she set about on a self-designed crash course to bring her dream, Heart to Heart, Expressions of Love, to life. She read every book she could find on marketing, copyright and promotion. She initially thought she would simply sell the idea, but the closer she got to the project, the more personal it became.

She took out a home equity loan and then sought direction from SCORE, the Service Core of Retired Executives, a service of the Small Business Administration. Through SCORE, she was teamed up with an experienced mentor who could advise her on how to get her idea onto store shelves.

“It was kind of like eating an elephant - one bite at a time,” she laughed. “I thought, ‘I can do this,’ and I did.”

Jean decided to market both a sterling silver pin and necklace. She also set to work writing short verses to package with the jewelry. She wrote 20, bribed friends and relatives for their opinion of the best ones with brownies, and copyrighted the six best. (She also has a cache of additional verses for future production.)

“This is really not a gift to give to just an acquaintance,” Jean said. “It’s really more fitting to give a close friend, lover or family member. It’s not a casual gift at all; it’s very personal. The verses are so general they can fit a variety of circumstances.”

After sketching her jewelry design, Jean hired a Rhode Island silversmith to create the solid silver heart pin and necklace. Product in hand, Jean pitched her idea to a few local merchants and two merchants in her home state of North Carolina. The jewelry arrived in stores two weeks before Christmas and was an immediate hit.

Jean’s favorite part about selling her Heart to Heart jewelry is the heartwarming stories behind the purchases. Her son’s teacher, with four daughters and two grand-daughters spread across the country and beyond, bought them each a piece so they could all be spiritually connected across the miles. Another couple, he a dental student in Memphis and she a local nursing student, exchanged the jewelry for Christmas as a way of keeping the bond close when they’re apart; the husband wears his on his belt.

As for Jean’s father, his health has been exceptionally well over the past year, and the pin he received at Christmas has been a perfect reminder of his daughter’s love for him.

“Jean’s dad has had people coming up to him in church just whipping open his jacket to see if his pin is there,” Neil said.

Love can always grow, of course, and the Heart to Heart line will be no exception: Jean plans on creating money clips, key chains and earrings in the future, and hopes to sell the jewelry at the Atlanta Gift Mart, a major source for independent producers to tap into the retail market.