In all honesty, I always heard Kenneth Jay Lane described as a snooty, curmudgeonly type of man. Imagine my surprise when the wonderful opportunity to meet him in his New York showroom arose and he turned out to be quite charming. Then, a few years later, I found him to be gracious and accommodating again during a phone interview as we chatted about his life as a jewelry designer and collector.
That’s not to say he didn’t have an air about him. He touted his television gig with QVC when we met in person as he excused himself to go ready for an on-air appearance. And on the phone, as he filled me in about his collection of Orientalist paintings, he mentioned in a somewhat haughty tone that he had “a wing” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He also shared how much he enjoyed collecting memento mori jewelry over the years, even though he “never once” incorporated skulls into his own designs.
Maybe I was starstruck. It happens. But I decided years ago to chalk up any slight arrogance he exhibited as a well-earned byproduct of just being Kenneth Jay Lane. Join me as I share a bit more on his background along with information on the varied jewelry he designed as an industry icon.
Kenneth Jay Lane (1932-2017), known by collectors as K.J.L. and to his close friends as simply “Kenny,” graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1954. A stint working in the art department at Vogue in New York came shortly thereafter and his interest in fashion design was piqued. He quite famously began designing shoes for Delman and Christian Dior, and, of course, some of his creations aptly included rhinestone embellishments.
While still a shoe designer, Lane began experimenting with jewelry as well. As the story goes, his career in adornment really took off in 1963 when the Duchess of Windsor raved about his jewelry to reporters. Some of his famed early work was influenced by greats that had become before him like Duke Fulco Di Verdura who worked for Chanel and a number of Cartier’s extraordinary fine jewel designs. His travels to Europe, Asia and other points around the world also provided inspiration for his jewelry creations.
As he became fully immersed in the costume jewelry business, Lane actually had a number of celebrity admirers of his designs and he created custom pieces for several of them. Among them were Jackie Kennedy, who was photographed wearing K.J.L. jewelry quite often. Elizabeth Taylor also owned and wore his pieces as did Audrey Hepburn.
When asked about a pair of his earrings owned and worn by Gloria Swanson that sold for quite a large sum at auction in the 2010s, the consummate salesman that was Lane replied, “Oh, I knew Gloria, she was a dear. That’s so lovely. But what pleases me more is that thousands of ladies can feel glamorous wearing my jewelry rather than just a few celebrities, especially through QVC. If it makes them happy to wear my jewelry, that makes me happy, too.”
So yes, if he wasn’t enough of a celebrity on his own as a costume jeweler to the rich and famous, he amped up his name recognition with a long-running stint on the home shopping channel QVC beginning in the early 1990s. Even before that, many American women were introduced to his jewelry through his offerings in Avon catalogs. Lane’s jewelry has also been sold in high-end boutique settings as well as through noteworthy department stores like Neiman Marcus.
Lane remained active in his New York showroom and on QVC well into his senior years spending more than more than five decades in the costume jewelry industry. He died in 2017 at the age of 85.
About KJL Jewelry
Jewelry by Kenneth Jay Lane has been produced both in the United States and in other parts of the world. Among the domestic jewelry manufacturers doing work for Lane during his early years was New York-based DeLizza & Elster, the company that made “Juliana” jewelry. Later, Gem-Craft, Inc. based in Cranston, Rhode Island manufactured some of his designs and others were made in Asian factories.
When it comes to what collectors most fervently seek, Lane’s jewelry from the 1960s and early ’70s ranks the highest. He was a master at designing large dangle earrings encrusted with sparkling rhinestones and richly colored cabochons. Some were combined with beads or other elements imitating turquoise, coral and a variety of gemstones. Large collar necklaces from this period containing similar components are valued even higher. His Indian-influenced Moghul style jewelry and ornate “Let Them Eat Cake” designs are particularly well known and desirable.
As time passed, Lane continued to draw inspiration from vintage jewelry as well as fashion trends in the 1980s, ‘90s and moving into the 2000s. He incorporated strands of faux pearls and glass beads into many popular necklace designs with fancy clasps. He also developed many designs featuring jungle felines. His K.J.L. for Avon suites marketed in the early 2000s included a best-seller called the Panther Collection which had a coordinating evening bag to match a gorgeous set of rhinestone-encrusted jewelry.
When trying to distinguish older K.J.L. pieces from newer ones, the lines are blurred a bit when using marks. It is easier with the earliest pieces from the 1960s and early ’70s since they are marked “K.J.L.” with periods between each letter. Take care not to confuse this mark with later jewelry signed “©KJL” (with a copyright symbol and no periods between the letters). This mark was used on QVC pieces as well as some sold in boutique settings and by upscale department stores in the early- to mid-2000s. Imported jewelry, especially pieces sold through QVC, are sometimes stamped with the country of origin as Thailand or China.
Another signature used earlier, right after the first K.J.L. mark, spelled out Kenneth Lane with each word curved around a copyright symbol within an oval plaque. A similar mark has been used more recently in the 2000s, but Kenneth is curved at the top of the oval while ©Lane is curved at the bottom. All these signatures are shown in detail in the Researching Costume Jewelry marks guide hosted on the Costume Jewelry Collectors Int’l LLC’s (CJCI) website.
Finding out more about Lane’s life and work is as easy as picking up a good book. A good point of departure is Kenneth Jay Lane: Faking It by Kenneth Jay Lane and Harrice Simons Miller. There are books about his jewelry and accessories available as well. Look for Kenneth Jay Lane Fabulous Jewelry & Accessories and Shamelessly, Jewelry from Kenneth Jay Lane, both by Nancy Schiffer.