Elisabeth Leenknegt, aka Elisa Lee, designs and makes jewelry out of hand forged silver and mouth-blown glass. She designates herself a silversmith, designer and glass artist in heart and soul. After today, I now know that she is charmingly chaotic (“I’m so sorry, I forgot that our meeting was planned today! Take a look around. I’ll be back soon, my colleague will bring you some coffee”), and that she is passionate about real craftsmanship since she was a little girl and has found her little paradise on earth to build tree houses. Take a look inside the mind of an ideologist.
When science meets art
Elisabeth and her brother grew up in a ‘makers’ family. From her father’s side, they were all artists or at least there was a connection with art. Her aunts and uncles from mother’s side were scientists. Elisabeth became a beautiful mix of both, resulting in a master of Archeology (investigation and analyses of glass) and the creation of her own jewelry collection at the same time. Every now and then you can still hear the archeologist talking when she is telling me about the preservation and durability of valuable objects. “Everything starts with the used technique and the material. It’s good to see and to feel that there is a ‘revival of the craft’ nowadays. Innovation is good and needed, but we can’t ignore the value of real craftsmanship, experience and knowledge.”
ELISAbeth LEEnknegt, two in one
Following the family tradition and a strong beliefs in true craftsmanship, Elisabeth started her own brand Elisa Lee in 2002. Over the years, Elisa Lee resulted out of a close team, designing and making the most beautiful jewels with glass. It is Elisa Lee’s mission and vision to work with the best quality of sterling silver, fair-trade gold and glass. All handmade in Belgium. Her collections stand for colorful and playful designs. Besides this collection, Elisabeth also introduced a second collection ‘Elisabeth Leenknegt’ that stands for more subtle and pure design within the higher segment. The Elisabeth Leenknegt collection gives her the possibility to explore a new way of designing without losing her own differentiation in taste, but glass still remains her trademark.
Can you imagine yourself making drawings on the ground in an atelier surrounded by glass frames filled with color? It was my own fairytale world.
What do they MAKE?, was a frequently asked question of Elisabeth’s son, Jules (aged 3 back then).
Pursuing the tradition of ‘making’ is a standard to Elisabeth and it has become a normality to her boy. “It’s difficult to explain to a 3 year old that not every mom and dad literally ‘make’ things. What we, my husband and I, do for a living is comprehensible to Jules : I ‘make’ jewels. His dad ‘makes’ bridges. You can see the results of both in daily life. When it comes to the professions of others, it’s not that clear”, she laughs.
- The ‘making’ philosophy was already present at young age : elisabeth made 160 voodoo dolls for friends during high school. The dolls on the picture are elisabeth, her best friend and her dad. -
A family trait
Typical ‘Leenknegt’-character traits seems to be stubbornness and perseverance. Characteristics that you need when you choose the road of craftsmanship, as it isn’t easy. Even her parents and grandfather have warned Elisabeth about it. But her fortitude led to the conscious decision to work locally, handmade and only with high quality and durable materials. With a lot of energy, enthusiasm and hard work Elisabeth managed to turn her label into a successful brand. Elisa Lee was rewarded for this Handmade In Belgium approach and received the HIB label. Elisabeth is still a driving force behind several ‘craftsmanship’ initiatives (e.g. ‘Jong bloed’).
Sometimes Elisabeth can also be overwhelmed by the oversupply of things. “I can imagine that it is really hard for beginners to stand out of the crowd. When you go to international trade fairs, and you see all of these new designs, even I sometimes wonder the relevance of our Elisa Lee approach. Everything is about trends that change so quickly. But my answer to that, is going back to our beliefs and continuing our journey to stand the test of time. And of course, working hard. Really hard, to obtain your goal.”
About the idea of creating a jewel collection in glass: “when I first started designing jewelry collections in glass, people were skeptical, wondering how that could be done because ‘glass is fragile, so it can break’. I understood their concern, but I also knew the characteristics of glass and I knew that it was possible. You just have to know how”.
You can go your own way
‘May it give you wings to fly’ is a little note in a booklet Elisabeth received from Sylvie Dhaene, former head of the museum “Huis van Alijn”, where Elisabeth worked for a while. She kept it during all these years because it still means a lot to her. She loved her job and colleagues in the museum, but at the same time Elisabeth was already dreaming of her own label of jewels in glass. “Sylvie felt that I was wandering into a different direction. Instead of trying to retain me and to change my mind (like my friends and even my parents tried to do), she gave me this booklet to say ‘it’s OK, go your own way’. Beside the booklet, she gave Elisabeth much more: Sylvie gave her the space, the thrust and the freedom to create a new future built upon her own believes. Something that is very precious.
A hovel with a view
The current atelier is located in Ronse, Belgium. Actually, Elisabeth lives and works in her atelier. During day time, the kitchen of the house is also used as a cafetaria for colleagues. The boundaries of work and private life have become very thin. Turning off the work modus is difficult. It was her husband who rang the alarm bell and together they decided to look for a new, separate home. Back to nature. Elisabeth takes me to her new little heaven on earth. “The house isn’t livable yet”, she told me, “but the view is great”. The winding road going down leads us to the ‘hovel with a view’. The view is magnificent, the quietude and silence overwhelming.
Even though they will only move to their new home within 3 years from now, it’s already used as a place to escape the bustle of daily life. “Sometimes I take a book and start reading under the pear tree over there. We also installed a tent where we sleep whenever we feel like it, or we organize a camp fire with friends.” She continues : “And in the trees over there I want to build tree houses, so friends can come over to relax and enjoy nature. And the meadows will serve as snow slopes in the winter”. The mood board standing in the former living room reveals a creative mind in progress. A creative mind of a dreamer with a mission.
We drive back to the atelier and I ask Elisabeth about a possible discontinuation of the family tradition of glass artists. She tells me she doesn’t mind. “Jules is free to make his own choices.” Something tells me that Jules will ‘make’ something of his life.
He will learn from the best. And that’s a good thing.