Kenneth Jay Lane Part I

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.

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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.

The showroom was filled with Lane's beautiful creation like these bracelets

The showroom was filled with Lane’s beautiful creations

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.

One of Lane's newest creations

One of Lane’s newest creations

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.

Scenes from Lane's Workshop

Scenes from Lane’s workshop

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Stringing pearls

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.

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Kenneth Jay Lane watched, available in August 2013

Kenneth Jay Lane watches, available in August 2013

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.

Look at that goofy smile on my face. Can you tell I'm excited?

Look at that goofy smile on my face. Can you tell I’m excited?

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.

Dreams Really Do Come True

All of you who have come along on this adventure with me know that this blog has brought me a great deal in a very short time. It has brought me to a place where I am more adventurous, more comfortable in my own skin, more appreciative of my strengths, and (probably most importantly) more accepting of my weaknesses. On Friday this blog will bring me to a place that I never dreamed: face to face with the legendary jewelry designer Kenneth Jay Lane.

Courtesy of Kenneth Jay Lane

Courtesy of Kenneth Jay Lane

For those of you who aren’t familiar with this master’s work, get ready to have your socks knocked off! Mr. Lane, or KJL as many of his fans refer to him, has been designing his own jewelry collection since 1962, and his pieces have been worn by famous (and famously fashionable) women such as Wallis Simpson, (the Duchess of Windsor), Jackie Kennedy and Elizabeth Taylor. Remember Barbara Bush’s signature three-strand pearl choker. Yep, that was JKL.

The Duchess of Windsor in KJL necklaces. Photo by Patrick Lichfield, Vogue 1967

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor in KJL necklaces. Photo by Patrick Lichfield, Vogue, 1967

His jewelry is also loved by a new generation of fashionistas as diverse as Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Michelle Obama (yes, it’s a stretch, but I include myself in this category as well) who love is colorful pieces, many of them animal inspired, covered in lacquer or semi-precious stones. And on Friday I will have the rare and exclusive opportunity to meet and interview the legend himself, learning how he followed his passion for fashion and created an amazing career and life out of it. I will be taking notes hoping that I can learn lessons to apply to my own passion-chasing adventure. I will also be spending time in his studio to see if making jewelry is my life’s next passion.

Michelle Obama in vintage Kenneth Jay Lane earrings

Michelle Obama in vintage Kenneth Jay Lane earrings. Photo by Saul Loeb

I can’t even begin to express how excited I am for this adventure. I am a huge fan. I own several KJL pieces, and love them dearly. Like any good journalist, I have been preparing for the interview of my life intensely.  I have read Mr. Lane’s book (a must read, the pictures are gorgeous and it is a who’s-who of fashion and society), and researched his life.  And you can get in on the action as well. If you have a question you are dying for me to ask Mr. Lane let me know. Leave a comment, email me or tweet me. I will choose a handful and will include the answers in my post.

Tune in next week for my two-part post on the man, and his work. I am filled with butterflies in anticipation of whatever Friday will bring, but one thing is for sure…as he told me himself, via twitter, I will not know what hit me.

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