Sometimes when there is a lot of anticipation surrounding an event, you end up disappointed when it doesn’t live up to your mile-high expectations. I find that New Years Eve and birthday parties are prime examples of this phenomenon. Meeting jewelry designer Kenneth Jay Lane was the antithesis.
I arrived at Lane’s showroom on 37th Street in New York’s Fashion District to find him sitting at a round table in the middle of the action. As he stood to greet me I felt more nervous than any other interview I have ever conducted in my career. Journalists must remain objective about their sources, but as my career has morphed from journalist to blogger, I have been able to relax those stringent rules drilled into my head in J School and just have fun. Last Friday I was able to be interviewer and admirer at the same time. Lane and I spoke about his career, his fabulous friends, how the business (not to mention the world) has changed in the fifty years he has been in the jewelry business. This week I’m writing about his work and company, next week will be about about the man himself.
(I am breaking the posts up for several reasons: I have two hours of audio recordings to transcribe and my post about our conversation means a tremendous amount to me. I don’t want to rush the writing of it. This also gives readers who are not as obsessed with Lane as I am valuable background before we dive into our incredible personal conversation).
Lane, who just turned 80, looked dapper in a double-breasted navy blazer, a blue button-down shirt and jeans. He grew up in Michigan, but speaks with the sophisticated inflection of an East Coast patrician. He moved east to attend Rhode Island School of Design, and then to Manhattan. I am a huge fan of his work, and was incredibly curious about what he would be like. I was also a little worried that I may be disappointed by meeting the man behind the animal bangles. What if he was not all that I thought he would be? I had no reason to be worried. In real life Lane is kind and was very generous with his time. He was also funnier than I had expected. As we took our seats at the table I took a moment to soak in my surroundings. His showroom is filled with his designs, every wall, shelf and surface is covered in rings, animal cuffs and his iconic statement pearl necklaces. This is where buyers from around the world come to choose the Kenneth Jay Lane items that they want to feature in their stores. The different sectioned-off nooks of the showroom are organized by style, color and material.
And then we started talking…our conversation was easy and engaging, punctuated with laughs, cigarettes and Chinese take out.
Lane said he never expected to be a jewelry designer. He fell into it — he refers to his jewelry career “this funny thing” — in the early 1960’s. He had been designing shoes for Dior when his friend, the legendary Bazaar and Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, suggested he try jewelry. And with that small nudge, a legend was born. Within a month his pieces were in department stores and boutiques up and down Fifth Avenue. One month! That’s a testament not only to his vision, but also his friends and supporters, who, in addition to Vreeland, included the upper echelon of fashion and New York society.
Could this type of over-night success happen in today’s internet age? Probably. One mention by personalities such as Oprah can mean millions of dollars in sales, but there is something so organic about Lane’s speedy success. He came into his own at a more modest time. He observed that in his heyday individuals employed PR representatives “to keep their names out of the paper, not to get them on the front page” as they do today.
Lane speaks about his lengthy career as I imagine any octogenarian would: he is comfortable with what he’s done and all he has accomplished. He said he has no real regrets. It’s a perspective that must come from time and experience. It’s clear that Lane does – and designs – what he likes, and doesn’t seem all that concerned with what other people think. As it so happens, other people love what he designs. He says that “jewelry should be fun,” and his is. From the animal cuffs, to his Art Deco pendants (Art Deco is his favorite styles), to the elaborate gold pieces inspired by his travels to Egypt. His pieces are as popular and relevant as they were decades ago.
Lane is a perfectionist. The bracelet above took about a year and a half to get just right, from the shade of the stones (he special orders glass and semi-precious stones from Germany) to their exact placement. His is an artistic process, “But the joy you get from getting it right,” Lane observed, “is quite fun.”
99% of Kenneth Jay Lane jewelry is manufactured in the U.S.A., specifically in a studio off of the showroom. I was able to spend some time in the workshop with the dozens of artisans and support staff who string the pearls and solder the stones (specially chosen for the exact shade). It was incredible not only to see all the beautiful pieces on display, but also see where and how they are made.
Lane comes to the office every day and remains the company’s only designer. While still extremely popular in the U.S. fifty years after he started, he is also a favorite of women across the globe. In an age when, as a nation, we are so concerned with “keeping up with China,” Kenneth Jay Lane is one of the few brands that exports “Made in America” products to Asia. His pieces are also extremely popular in Japan, Turkey and Almaty, Kazakhstan which is experiencing a major economic boom. Who would have guessed?
Lane does not rest on his laurels. Although you can still buy many of his iconic pieces that shot to popularity decades ago — and remain on-trend today — he continues to develop new products and categories. In August he will launch a line of watches, which he gave me a sneak peek of. One watch in the collection is modeled after the very watch that Lane himself wears. He also took the time to show me a new line of scarves that he is working on. He is 80-years-old and is still inspired to create fresh, new, fanciful pieces of wearable art.
As with most things related to this blog, my conversation with Lane eventually turned to the discussion of his passion in life, specifically whether designing jewelry is that passion. His answer was simple in its practicality. “Jewelry doesn’t hurt anyone,” the former shoe designer observed. “Shoes can have fit problems,” which is the most polite way to describe women struggling to walk gracefully in uncomfortable heels. Jewelry, especially Kenneth Jay Lane’s, is fun.
When I asked him if designing is more fun now than it was in the 1960’s he did not miss a beat. “Much more fun now,” he explained. “I have much more money now and I don’t mind spending it on experimenting.”
Fifty years later Kenneth Jay Lane is still experimenting, to the great benefit of his fans all over the world, including this one.
Stay tuned for next week’s post on my personal conversation with Kenneth Jay Lane in which we covered everything from the idea of celebrity, his famous friends and admirers, how society – and the society pages – have changed over the years and his legacy.