In the Loupe: Playing 20 questions with jeweler Kenneth Jay Lane

Someone remarked recently she never paid attention to costume jewelry because her grandmother, a well-known antiques dealer, called the stuff “junk.” Sometimes grannies, even great ones, can really steer a girl in the wrong direction. Case in point: The jewelry of a man who put the “que” in junk and turned it into very desirable ‘junque.’

Kenneth Jay Lane, or KJL as he’s known and monogrammed, has some sort of hold on women – or his jewelry does. Dames of many ages get crushes on his creations and must have them. His work has long entranced hardcore jewelry junkies, including members of the society set, diehard QVCers, and the greatest stars of Hollywood, who’ve lavished his creations for decades ’round their throats, wrists and on their earlobes.

As a global gadabout, anything and everything has inspired him, from bazaar tchotchkes to a pal’s Art Deco bauble; from the masterpieces of great designers to a rock on the beach. Part of his staying power is the rare ability to cross lines, to be seen as both elitist upper crust and a man of the masses. Nice trick if you can pull it off. He also performs a clever balancing act with jewelry that’s considered both wearable and collectible. He’s urbane, insouciant, and, albeit with aplomb, a terrible smart-aleck.

There’s a lot of Lane’s jewelry out there, on both the primary and secondary markets, but that doesn’t stop people from paying exorbitant prices for it. His oldest signature or mark on jewelry is a simple ‘K.J.L.’ on raised oval cartouche, which usually fetches the most, but not always. (Since it’s 40-plus years old now, most ovals have some patina or aging.) Plus, repros, knockoffs and counterfeits pop up, which you’d imagine muddy the waters more than they actually do.

We interviewed the man from Manhattan in order to clear up some things.

Kathy Flood: Vanity Fair had an excerpt of Furious Love, the Taylor-Burton love affair bio, and it made me recall a photograph of Elizabeth Taylor embracing Audrey Hepburn at a party. I think Hepburn was wearing your jewelry. Did Taylor too?

Kenneth Jay Lane: Not only did Liz wear my jewelry, but she even had a pair of earrings of mine that she bought in Paris copied in real diamonds. It’s in her book of jewels.

Kathy Flood: Who is the most beautiful woman who’s ever been in your showroom?

Kenneth Jay Lane: Babe Paley. (July 5, 1915 – July 6, 1978) American  socialite and style icon.

Kathy Flood: Really. Which woman wearing your jewelry thrilled you the most to see her wearing it?

Kenneth Jay Lane: Babe Paley.

Recent Sale Prices for Kenneth J. Lane jewelry

Mogul-style bib set (necklace and earrings),  $1,000

Coral enameled bypass bracelet with faux jade terminals,

Egyptian Revival shoulder-duster earrings, simulated sapphire, coral and malachite,  $495

Faux-turquoise demilunes-and-cabochons necklace, $399

Famous jeweled Maltese Cross cuff bracelet,  $395

‘Flower Girl’ camellia necklace,  $280

Vintage necklace with huge glass stones,  $275

New ‘Garden Party’ cuff bracelet $249

Full parure, simulated-pearls necklace, bracelet, earrings,  $210

Figural watch brooch in form of crab,  $199.99

Vintage bib necklace with rhinestones,  $190.50

Rhinestone-studded large-link chain necklace, $175

‘Iconic’ lion doorknocker demi-parure with yellow Lucite hoops,  $135

Enameled rhinestone panther necklace,  $123.50

Kathy Flood: I think I would have voted for Julie Christie, but then I never knew Paley. Tell us five unusual things that have inspired your jewelry designs.

Kenneth Jay Lane: 1) [My birth]  2) Marella Agnelli’s turquoise snakes all the way up one long arm, across from me in the South of France  3) The Green Vault of Dresden [museum housing countless treasures]  4) Jackie Onassis asking me to copy her necklace  5) The Schatzkammer in Munich [another renowned museum treasury].

Kathy Flood: Do you consider your jewelry fashion accessory or collectible design art?

Kenneth Jay Lane: A fashion accessory … however, now a collectible – but what isn’t?

Kathy Flood: What are the three best-selling pieces ever in your line?

Kenneth Jay Lane: 1) Interchangeable doorknocker earrings  2) pearls on QVC  3) more pearls on QVC.

Kathy Flood: Could you substitute something for one of the two nods to pearls on QVC?

Kenneth Jay Lane: The Verdura-for-Chanel Maltese Cross [cuff bracelet], and shell earrings with and without stones.

 Kathy Flood: When you look back over more than four decades of jewelry design, which pieces stand out in your mind?

Kenneth Jay Lane: The ones that sold the most.

Kathy Flood: But there must be some design that, when you see it, you still get a rush of satisfaction, or think, ‘that really is a great piece.’

Kenneth Jay Lane: The Indian ‘ruby’ bead with ‘emeralds’ and pearls inspired by a very valuable one belonging to Marella Agnelli. Now all her friends have it. [Agnelli’s bio notes always include the facts of her social status, marital status to Fiat chairman Gianni Agnelli, and lit-chic status as one of Truman Capote’s ‘swans.’]

Kathy Flood: Is there anything you’ve wanted to simulate you haven’t?

Kenneth Jay Lane: Myself.

Kathy Flood: You’re one of the few costume-jewelry or fashion-jewelry designers who still has almost all of his jewelry made in America, in Rhode Island in fact. Why is that?

Kenneth Jay Lane: They [the other designers] must eat in Rhode Island. (Then seriously he adds): Providence has very few craftsmen, but they are still the best in the world.

Kathy Flood: What is the most exciting piece or design in your line for fall 2010?

Kenneth Jay Lane: My jeweled crocodile necklace.

Kathy Flood: As an overall statement, would you say your jewelry has come out of your studios, factories and showrooms marked / signed … unsigned … variously signed … all of the above?

Kenneth Jay Lane: It’s all marked ‘Kenneth Jay Lane’ or ‘KJL.’

Kathy Flood: I have a coral-cabs bangle just marked China (from the small group you had made there), purchased from a reliable dealer, and a jeweled cuff in original box, unmarked. A dealer who’s been buying for many years from you said that happens, some pieces are unmarked.

Kenneth Jay Lane: Very occasionally a piece is missing its signage. No one is perfect!

Kathy Flood: You are considered casual about counterfeiters. Are you?

Kenneth Jay Lane: If one isn’t copied, one isn’t successful.

Kathy Flood: People don’t just reproduce your designs, they actually make random designs and stick your name on them. The most well-known example of that is the Christmas tree pin. So many of them, all with your name on them. When I brought them to your showroom, I remember you all looked like you were going to be sick.

Kenneth Jay Lane: I’m too busy to go after counterfeiters.

Kathy Flood: What are you most aware of that isn’t your own … but indicates it is?

Kenneth Jay Lane: People who say they are my best friends.

Kathy Flood: I think you’re a candidate for the ‘Proust Questionnaire’ in VF.  Sellers reproduce your vintage jewelry and sell as originals; dealers sell your brand new pieces as vintage and ask far over retail for them; others make jewelry and add your byline. Does it just make me nauseous, or you too?

Kenneth Jay Lane: I have pills for nausea.

Kathy Flood: You’re known as a globe-trotting cosmopolite who never visited China. That’s been written numerous times, but is it even true?

Kenneth Jay Lane: I’ve been to China before, doing business there, in Beijing. Since then, I’ve been many times.

Kathy Flood: Do women in China love your simulated-jadeite jewelry above all else, or has something else won over their hearts?

Kenneth Jay Lane: Anything and everything, but they have enough jade in China. [For instance at luxury store Lane Crawford] the clientele loves the same jewelry as ladies in the U.S. and Europe.

Kathy Flood: Devotées of KJL are accustomed to seeing you in the company of beautiful women. Chinese women who are fans of yours say they want to see you photographed in the company of beautiful Chinese women. Are you game for that?

Kenneth Jay Lane: Why not? But where oh where is Anna May Wong?

Kathy Flood: Please sum up your body of work.

Kenneth Jay Lane: I made costume jewelry fashionable ?

Kathy Flood is a journalist, author and owner of the online antique jewelry shop Her latest book, Warman’s Jewelry, 4th Edition, from Krause Publications.

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