I got my first signal from the Patricia Locke Cult last fall, the day I moved to Chicago. I was standing in the MCA gift shop, paying for a set of Mies van der Rohe postcards–something Chicagoan to send back to New York. As I was coaxing change from my purse, a pair of earrings trapped in the glass case below called me.

I don’t usually listen to earrings. I don’t wear them much; I don’t even have pierced ears. But when Patricia Locke’s earrings speak to you, you listen. I tried them on. The coils of dull gold, the amber centers, the quirky suns dangling off the bottom told me I had to have them. The guy behind the counter told me they were $150.

I left with my postcards.

About a week later, the second message arrived. I was having dinner at Cafe du Midi, when my date introduced me to a friend. “Cool earrings,” I said; they had to be cousins of the MCA pair. “Patty Locke,” she said. Something told me it was an important moment. Concentrate, I thought. John Locke, Loch Ness monster, lock and key, key to the city. You can remember that. Then, casually sipping her espresso, she let it slip. “Sample sale. She has it a couple times a year. You should get on the list.” Being new in town, I had figured getting in with the in crowd would be tough. I never suspected I’d have to get on a list. Patty Locke, key to the city.

Weeks drifted by. I checked the phone book under L. I stared through the windows of jewelry stores. Was Patricia Locke just another Betty Crocker? I had been duped by that gimmick before. Finally, I gave in. Fuck the list. Fuck the price tag. I walked my credit card back to the MCA and took a sharp left into the gift shop.

Gone. I asked twice. I described them in detail to the guy fondling the cash register. “Oh, those earrings. The Patty Lockes. We sold them about 45 minutes ago.” I nodded. I flipped through the Mies postcards again. “Hey,” I said, straining for nonchalance. “You wouldn’t know how I could get in touch with her, would you?”

I left without any postcards.

One night, deep in an apartment hunt, I came across Art Effect. I recognized Robin Richman’s handknit sweaters running down the center of the store, and figured the work of local artists must be featured among the clothes, crafts–and glistening cases of jewelry. “Surely you carry Patricia Locke,” I asked. “No,” the saleswoman told me. “She’s so upscale now. You can even get her stuff at Bendel’s.” “Of course,” I said. I couldn’t imagine anyone on the List shopping at Bendel’s.

Fall drifted by. I met people. I ended up in a crowded bar chatting with my new boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend. “Cool necklace,” I said. “Patty’s sale,” she said. “I get everything there. These earrings. This necklace. All my Christmas presents. You really ought to go.”

A few nights later, sans jewelry, I arrived at a party. A woman I vaguely recognized caught my eye, then for no apparent reason strode across the room, commandeered a pen, and scribbled out an address. “Here–” she shoved the paper in my hand. “The sale’s Thursday from six to nine.” God, wearing divine earrings, smiled.

Thursday at 5:30 a friend of a friend called. “I hear you’re going to the sale.” I asked if she needed a ride. “No,” she lowered her voice, “just the address.”

I arrived before six, certain I’d be the first on the scene. By the time I climbed the stairs, I realized my mistake. The place, an architect’s office, was mobbed. I had planned a careful search for those perfect earrings, the pair that had called my name at the MCA, but the mass hysteria was overwhelming.

Women of all ages, most still in work clothes and overcoats, bunched around drafting tables covered with jewelry. With the speed and concentration of emergency-room surgeons, they skimmed the edges, scooping up handfuls of chain-link necklaces, lethally spiked bracelets, silver and crystal stick pins, jewel-encrusted earrings. They dropped their loot into dainty paper sacks, then retreated to the back.

There, among the photocopiers, desk lamps, and technical manuals, the real business began. Each woman or team of shoppers staked out a couple feet of territory. One barricaded herself behind three chairs and a pile of coats. Then they spread out their treasures and began the painstaking process of sifting “keeps” from “rejects.” Pocket mirrors littered the floor. Earnest discussions of coloring and face shapes thickened the air.

“This is cute, kind of Flintstone era.”

“I’ll have to see if it matches my karma.”

“Can I get all 18 for myself?”

Two young women who said they were moms playing hooky laid out jewel-filled cards as if in a game of doubles solitaire, shuffling, sorting, and resorting. Occasionally they’d consult the price list posted on the wall. Red stickers: $5; orange: $10; yellow: $15; blue: $20; light blue: $25; green (and a light green that looked suspiciously like yellow): $30. All rings, $5. Single earrings, $3.

The singles perplexed everyone. One woman wanted to make them into pins. Another suggested stringing them along a chain. I bumped into the ex-girlfriend at the singles basket, and we stood there a long time, matching up off-kilter combos. “If I wear two matching earrings,” she said, “I feel way too dressed up.” We kept choosing the same singles, which irritated me after a while, so I moved back to the pairs.

A friend of the ex-girlfriend arrived. So did the woman with the address. And a few people they knew. And some people their friends knew. The thing seemed like a frenzied cocktail party.

Pretty soon, the women hunkered down in their campsites started sneaking peeks, then long looks, then lustful stares, at each other’s hoards. That’s when round two began. Everyone started shopping from each other, traveling from one camp to the next, like bedouins at a market. The rules were simple: “rejects” were fair game. You had to bargain for “keeps.” Everyone seemed to have things in back no one had even seen out front.

My quest for the earrings was slow going, and eventually I got distracted enough to pick up something else, a cascade of golden wiggles and squiggles.

Short the necessary make-up compact, I wedged my way into the bathroom. The sink overflowed with rejects. The moms, perched on the edge of the tub, were down to their final choices. “I’m sorry,” one said to the other, “this pair is for someone who works in an office.” I found a free sliver of mirror, clipped on the earrings, and grinned. Definite keeps.

They looked like Spirographs on a drunk. Things started out calmly enough up top, a gold cord coiled tightly over the clip. Below, the same coil, having lost all control, sprung loose into a wobbly spiral, swinging from a tiny ring. At the bottom, threaded through the last loop, a little sun, or maybe a flattened jack, spun like a spur.

I turned them over, unclasped the clip, and squinted at the signature: P. Locke.

I carried Patricia Locke’s business card, snagged from the sale, for a week before I dared call. When a voice answered Patricia Locke Limited, and invited me to come visit, I felt faint. The instructions were fairly clear: out 294, past billboards and angry toll clerks, until I got to the part about “turn right after shopping center.” Mundelein offered that opportunity every 200 feet or so.

Heading for the factory, I had pictured an imposing Dickens-era foundry belching black soot. As soon as I caught on to the shopping center problem, I knew I had something wrong. I found the right right, which runs through one of Mundelein’s “medium industrial” zones, and pulled up to a tidy brown prefab with plenty of parking. The belly of the beast.

When I reached the door, Patricia Locke, real live Patricia Locke, met me. Blunt cut hair, heavy specs, baggy pants, eggplant cardigan, no-nonsense shoes. No jewelry. Patty Locke, key to the city.

She had just finished moving her seven-person staff out of her basement and into the prefab–3,000 sterile square feet housing a menagerie of growling machines snorting through shiny ventilation tubes.

The factory is a big deal. It’s proof that costume jewelry isn’t reserved for old ladies lunching at Woolworth’s. Proof that if you spend your childhood diligently collecting screws and bolts and industrial waste, you can end up with a rep in New York, regular shipments to Bendel’s, and a portfolio thick with magazine tear sheets.

Back when Patty was a tomboy in Highland Park, she divided her time between two pursuits: competing in sports and collecting stuff. Her athletic career folded when she was nine, in a nasty tackle that ruined her left hip. She had a hip replacement at 20, but today, 21 years later, there’s still an uneven swing to her walk and she dreads the possibility of a replacement replacement. “It was very humiliating to be that into sports, then to be on crutches. I didn’t have friends after that.” Which, says Patty, gave her the introspection, and patience, to explore her artistic side.

Young Patty was a devoted collector. Once she removed the little plastic price numbers from every shelf in a grocery store. She was so enamored of nuts and bolts she would sneak handfuls from Sears. The centerpiece of her collection was “poison glass,” actually enamel slag poached from a nearby ravine.

Things haven’t changed much. Patty still lives in the suburbs, sharing a salmon pink house with her girlfriend, painter Hollis Sigler, and their dogs, Carson and Tennessee. Patty’s studio, upstairs in the house, is dominated by a long low table, clearly Patty’s early image of heaven. Little boxes segregate screws, springs, beads, crystals, feathers, rings, shells, mini hand grenades studded with gems, lengths of chain, fake pearls. Patty knows she doesn’t fit the standard fashion-designer mold. But surveying all the little boxes, she reconsiders. “In a sense I do exactly what I think was my destiny.”

Before accepting her destiny, Patty tried college, thought about becoming a shrink, traveled to South America a lot. At 20, sick of waitressing, she took to pounding out wedding bands and fixing jewelry, more or less as therapy. “I made a lot of bad jewelry,” Patty says. “But I learned. I learned by going to New York a lot and getting my feelings hurt.” Among other things, Patty says, she “had to learn to dress right.”

Patty now moves more gracefully between Mundelein and Seventh Avenue, where she spends a total of five weeks a year, dressed mainly in Armani. She keeps pace with the industry schedule, designing and producing 24 new pieces for each season: spring I, spring/summer II, fall I, fall/winter II, and resort/holiday. By the time I met her, 20 years into the game, she was getting used to her destiny. “I’ve become this person,” she says, “a designer.”

Patty starts to design by flipping through notes scratched on bits of paper (she swears she can’t draw), ideas culled from visits to museums, and her wall of books, ranging from the Alert Tools Supply Company catalog to Ancient Mexico.

Behind her table, stored in a blue wooden cupboard, Patty keeps boxes and boxes of wax. Soft red wax so fragile it can pick up fingerprints; thin layers of green wax wrapped in sheets of tissue paper; fine spaghetti sticks of wax; spools wound with ropes of wax; thick tubes of hard blue wax; and big Ziplock bags crammed with wax curls. She picked up the curls, and much of the hardware littering her table, from the floor of a machine shop.

She heats, bends, and drills the wax into intricate shapes, prototypes of the elements she later pieces together into pins, necklaces, bracelets, rings, and earrings. (No belt buckles, in solidarity with cows.) My earrings include three elements: the tight coil, the drunk coil, and the spur.

She sends the elements to a casting house, which translates each wax positive into a negative, a rubber mold in two pieces that clamp together like dentures fitted for a reptile. Patty, who pretty much taught herself the craft, used to do her own casting, blow-torches and all. These days, the casting house fills the dentures with bronze or brass a few hundred times, then ships back a load of elements ready for step two.

That’s when Patty sits at her big table of tiny toys and fits the elements together into designs that drive people like me wild. She calls it “internal chess.” There are two tricks: movement and balance. “My jewelry today is a lot like I am as a person,” she says. “It’s about relationships. Relationships of complexity and depth.”

Patty keeps a record of the elements she has designed by gluing one of each to a huge square of foam core board. The filled-up boards, which litter both her studio and factory, look like periodic tables. They trace the evolution of her style from clean industrial design through an outer-space phase to her current lumpy primitive theme. “My work has become much more playful,” she says. “I can see my entire childhood in it.”

Some of the elements never make it off the boards. The lucky ones get reincarnated into dozens of pieces. Those are the ones that walk the line between Patty’s esoteric taste and the industry’s demand for trendiness.

Spring ready-to-wear, for instance, perennially calls for navy-and-white sailor suits. Patty does her part, coming up with nautical-theme accessories. Tongue partway in cheek.

One zigzag pin careens from stars to earth to sea, a little lesson, if you will, on ecosystems. Her Spring II catalog is swamped with shells that look like unearthed fossils, Mayan-looking suns, and fish, wonderful, wriggling fish. Patty, who says current influences are Kandinsky, Picasso, Mexican folk art, and African masks, would like to do even kinkier stuff. “I want to do something inspired by the Day of the Dead,” she says. “But those ladies”–presumably the ones shopping at Bendel’s–“would freak out if I was making little skulls and things.”

Once Patty arrives at the perfect arrangement of elements, she takes the master to her factory. There, her collection of machines and their human partners grind, solder, smooth, and assemble the cast elements into finished jewelry. The pieces are then shipped to Rhode Island for plating in antique gold or silver.

Back in Mundelein, Rich Jorgensen, who finishes the pieces, presides over a dazzling table-sized tackle box of Austrian crystals and semiprecious stones. Beads of Mexican crazy lace agate, like modern-day poison glass, fill one cube. When the pieces come back from plating, he fits the stones into their settings, inspects each finished piece, and makes up orders. The heaviest shipments go to Henri Bendel, Neiman Marcus, and Saks. A few boutiques, including Jaded in New York and Handle With Care here, place regular orders. Her pieces range from about $25 to $120 wholesale, and retail, for those not on the List, for at least double.

Below Rich’s glistening table, a rack fitted with cafeteria trays holds a jumble of pieces, some finished, some naked. “Sample-sale stuff,” Patty explained. “Things that aren’t perfect, or are discontinued.” I ogled the trays.

Patty flashed Rich an uncomfortable look, the two passed the look to me; they asked me to step into the lunch-room. As I backed behind the long folding table, Rich, Patty, and general manager Nan Streicker lined up on the other side. “Listen, I hate to ask you this,” Patty began, “but we don’t really want a lot of people showing up for the sample sale. It’s really a private thing, you know, for our friends and their friends–people on the list.”

I nodded, remembering my treasures. The wiggles, a pair of fossilized clips, long earrings set with green stones for my sister-in-law, and a lapel pin for my mom. And one mismatched set. All told, they came to $106. I said I understood.

I thanked them, and found my coat.

“By the way,” Patty asked, “would you like to sign the list?”

As I bounced back to the parking lot, I could feel my drunken earrings swinging from side to side, tapping out a secret message. “On the list,” they tapped. “On the list.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mike Tappin.