Fellows Focus: Elizabeth Locke

With a 100-acre estate in Virginia and an 1861 English manor style home in South Carolina, there is plenty of space for Fellow Elizabeth Locke to flex her green thumb. And she's done just that. From tomato patches to box parterres, Elizabeth's gardens are lush with southern charm. When she's not in Virginia or South Carolina, Elizabeth is traveling the world for Elizabeth Locke Jewels, producing handmade pieces based on the antique jewelry worn by the Greeks, Romans, and Etruscans, featuring striking elements such as intaglios, richly hued cabochons, and micromosaics.

When did you first become interested in gardening?
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t garden. Some of my earliest memories are of planting vegetable seeds with my father and Toby the cat. I’ve always been intrigued by plants and their mysterious life. Their beauty inspires me and every season is different and challenging. You are never bored when you garden!

Do gardens and the natural landscape inspire your jewelry design? 
In truth, I really am not inspired by gardens when it comes to designing jewelry. I am inspired by medieval armor, by paintings of Renaissance women with wonderful chains, and by textiles. I would say, however, that my interest in flowers does heavily influence my choice of colors and what colors are harmonious together.

Your passion for jewelry design was sparked by a chance trip to Bangkok when on assignment for Town & Country magazine. How did you decide to launch your own very successful business?
It was totally a leap into the dark! The model for our story was married to the head of the jewelry department at Sotheby’s and while we waited for her to change clothes and have her hair fluffed, the two of us would discuss the world of jewelry. By the time the story had been shot, he had convinced me that I should give up writing and join the exciting world of gems and jewels. I arrived home from the trip and announced to my surprised husband that I would be moving to New York to study gemology. I then took all of my husband’s frequent flyer miles and borrowed $20,000 from my father-in-law and went back to Bangkok to work with a group of goldsmiths that I had met while on assignment. They did beautiful work, all completely by hand, but the finished jewels left a lot to be desired. My theory was that if they were given better quality stones and more interesting designs, the end result would be interesting for the American market.

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is about to open an exhibition of micromosaics from your collection in April. What has it been like working with the museum to present these exquisite pieces?
I’ve never worked with a museum before but this has been a true pleasure and, of course, a learning experience. I have no idea of what the exhibit is actually going to look like once it’s in place, but I’ve been involved with the production of the catalog and some of the items that will be sold in the gift shop. VMFA does a wonderful job of displaying jewelry, so I’m not worried. Read more about the exhibition on the museum's website.

You and your husband have spent a lot of time and energy transforming the property and gardens of your farm in Clarke County, VA, and home in Beaufort, SC. Tell us about your gardens.
We spend most of our time in Virginia, and I waited a long time before I could have the garden that I wanted. We did a complete two-year renovation of the house ten years ago, which allowed us to bring in bulldozers and create flat spaces to house box parterres, cutting gardens, and a greenhouse. In Beaufort, we also have box parterres, but these date to the 19th century so gardening there was a question of replanting and adding lots of camellias and ferns to the plants that already existed. The properties are completely different—one is alkaline and clay and the other is acidic and sandy! The Virginia garden is at its peak from April until mid-October; as that property starts to hibernate, South Carolina starts to bloom. It’s an extremely satisfying combination for me!

Do you enjoy one type of garden work over another? You keep both formal and functional gardens, which often require very different types of care.
I have always loved vegetable and cut flower gardens. I habitually overplant—especially vegetables! No sane person plants 60 tomato plants for two people….but I just like watching things grow. We give the vegetables to Meals on Wheels. Since I travel so much, most of the maintenance is left to others but I’m always around when we do major planting like the vegetable gardens and dahlias in the spring. And I am always “housekeeping” in the greenhouse, snipping away yellowing leaves and moving pots around.

You have been a member of the Society of Fellows since 2013 and have participated in several Fellows tours; thank you! Tell us about your experiences as Garden Conservancy Fellows and members of our community of garden enthusiasts.
My husband and I have had such wonderful tours with the Garden Conservancy! We have been truly impressed with the interesting cast of characters who are drawn together by the love of gardens. Everyone has been extremely welcoming and good-natured on trips, and we have seen wonderful gardens and homes that have inspired us.

Any other thoughts or remarks you’d like to share?
As much as I love designing jewelry, I feel that sooner or later I will turn in my tweezers and loupe for the never-ending challenge of hybridizing dahlias and attempting to grow sweet peas in sultry Virginia

Learn more about Elizabeth Locke Jewels at www.elizabethlocke.com.

Photos from top of this article: The garden in summer in Virginia; Elizabeth Locke; bouquet from her garden in Beaufort, SC; garden in Beaufort, SC; tree peonies in bloom at Elizabeth's farm in Virginia; summer cut flowers in Virginia