WITH HER LATEST BOUTIQUE, ELIZABETH LOCKE GOES FOR BUCOLIC SPLENDOR.
Byline: Joanna Ramey
WASHINGTON — Passion is a curious source of inspiration because it often defies explanation. Which is why jewelry designer Elizabeth Locke’s choice for her latest boutique — Boyce, Va., population 300 — is all the more intriguing.
Locke has stores in New York and Aspen, and Neiman Marcus sells her one-of-a-kind treasures of exotic and antique stones and pearls set in hammered gold to an upscale clientele. So it’s a bit of a stretch to imagine why Locke would want to branch out to a country road town where the only other businesses are the Lord & Lady Beauty Salon, the Bank of Clarke County and Bill’s Chevron station.
Locke and her husband, John Staelin, do have a farm nearby. And Boyce is technically located in Virginia’s hunting country, although it’s a long drive and on the other side of a mountain from the tonier environs of Middleburg and Upperville. Still, why Boyce?
“In life, you sometimes need to do things for no reason. Why not?” is the closest Locke comes to explaining her choice of locations. Even more inexplicable is how she’s transformed a 6,000- square-foot abandoned clapboard grocery store into an Italian palazzo. Her renovation budget clearly was unrelated to her expectations for the number of customers she expects to attract.
“This will never begin to pay for itself. There is no way I could possibly break even,” Locke stated frankly, but with regret, noting that she hasn’t made an accounting of the renovation cost, beyond a recollection that the building itself cost in the low six figures. “Honestly, I don’t have an idea and I don’t want to know,” she insisted.”
Indeed, while she plans to run the business as a commercial enterprise “in a casual way,” Locke said she’d be just as happy “hanging out, listening to opera and reading trashy magazines” in the space she has created.
A buttery apricot on the outside, with traditional shingles and shudders, the building has been transformed inside into a fanciful space, with a Corinthian colonnade along one wall resembling a breezy Venetian balcony replete with a glimpse of the Grand Canal.
Locke’s jewelry is displayed in recessed glass cabinets between the columns, and in freestanding display cases that evoke Venetian towers and other playful architectural elements.
Among the designer’s treasures nesting on jewel-colored velvet pillows are brooches framing late-18th- and 19th-century micromosaics made in Vatican and Florentine workshops. One brooch is of a Cavalier King Charles spaniel, set with moonstones ($6,150) and another is a simple depiction of the Pantheon ($5,875). There’s also a large antique Carnelian seal depicting a hound, which Locke found in a London market and placed into a 19-karat ring setting ($2,550).
The story of the evolution of Locke’s Virginia/Venetian confection is even more far-fetched than its locale and extravagance. The entire concept, Locke explained, is rooted in the designer’s colorful alter ego — her long-lost “identical twin,” Elizabeth Victoria, kidnapped as a newborn by gypsies in Memphis, Tenn.
As the designer has imagined it, the two were recently reunited in Venice where Locke stumbled upon a sobbing Elizabeth Victoria in Cafe Florian. The twin was distraught over the death of her husband, a count who threw himself off the Rialto Bridge after squandering his family’s fortune.
As the story goes, Locke invited her destitute twin to Boyce and converted the grocery store into a palazzo befitting a countess sister. Elizabeth Victoria now lives downstairs, where she has a pillowy canopy bed on which supermarket tabloids are strewn. On the bedside table is her jeweled tiara stored in a Venetian gold-leaf box. Upstairs lives the countess’s loyal gondolier, Aldo.
Locke said her sister has had difficulty adjusting to her new digs after such a peripatetic life and has recently run off with a local volunteer fireman named Dwayne, nicknamed “Paw Paw.” (Aldo, for his part, has taken up with a West Virginia waitress.) The twin’s current liaison is a far cry from her storied earlier love affairs, which began with Elvis and included Fellini, Mick Jagger and Tom Jones.
To memorialize her alter ego’s trysts, Locke commissioned New York artist Michael Niklaus to create an Elvis shrine, on the order of something that one might find outside of Graceland. Niklaus also lent his decorative touch throughout, fashioning a screen with each partition dedicated to the countess’s other lovers of note. Additional artisans were hired, as well, including a marquesa from Italy, who painted the floor in a startling optical pattern.
At a recent unveiling of the palazzo, Locke’s neighbors, relatives, friends and clients mingled and took in the designer’s whimsy. According to her real sister, Sally Clark, Locke had a relatively normal childhood growing up in Virginia; but Clark does remember their father declaring that Locke was so high-energy she had jet fuel for blood.
Clark said the “countess” has been emerging for several years, as Locke left her job as an editor at Town & Country 12 years ago to combine her love of travel with jewelry design.
Of her sister’s sense of folly, Clarke remarked, “Elizabeth has always been imaginative.”