Kenneth Jay Lane is the most elegant of the revolutionaries in the world of costume jewelry.
His work has an undisputed, enduring, playful charm as his designs are about style, not fashion.
No jewelry designer other than Coco Chanel made it acceptable to wear fakes. But more than that, Kenneth Jay Lane truly made his costume jewelry a democratic experience.
Courage. Invention. A marketing genius that made the right connections between fine design, gorgeous material, and the woman who appreciates both (from Audrey Hepburn or Barbara Bush to an airline stewardess or a nurse).
Kenneth always loved the glamour of jewelry, the razzle-dazzle of high-quality glitter and the effect it had on the women who wore the gems, real or faux. As Kenneth developed his look, his inspiration shifted easily among Shah Jahan, David Webb, Crown jewels, the Renaissance, Marie Antoinette and the Topkapi Museum, among others.
He used to affirm:
“Every woman want to be a Cinderella when she puts on jewels. Faux jewelry is like wearing glass slippers. A woman can feel like she’s going to the ball, even if she’s not.”
He was born to be a jeweler.
“When I had my first ideas about making costume jewelry I wasn’t at all sure that it would be my life’s career. As it turned out, I was fortunate to become successful quickly and my things were, rather immediately, worn by many of the world’s most fashionable women. Voilà, I was a jeweler. Fortunately, I never dread going to my office. I really enjoy what I do and get an enormous thrill when a sample that I’ve been working on, sometimes for as long as a year, finally emerges in a state of perfection. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a dentist or an accountant. The satisfaction I get out, creating things and seeing them worn by women is as great as the gratification I get from any other aspect of my life.”
“When I began designing jewelry, I was the fool that rushed in. I made my own rules. I didn’t know what was commercial or what have already been done. I just did what I liked, and I really didn’t know much, if anything, about manufacturing costume jewelry. “
In 1962 he started his company, which was soon bought by Hettie Carnagie. Before that he was creative director for Dior shoes and worked in association with Roger Vivier.
“Other inspirations came out from the shoes biz. I went to the factory one day and the thought hit me “Why not skins?”. Inspired by the way shoes heels are covered with leather, I saw how the process could work for covering plastic bracelets. (…)
By 1962, I started having bracelets covered in zebra, lizard and even alligator skin in marvelous color. (…)
At the time I knew little about merchandising so I went to Geraldine Sutz, who was the president of Henri Bendel. The store was already selling my earrings, and Gerry loved the bangles. I let Bendel’s had an exclusive on the bracelets. That was April. By June everyone had copied them.”
He also used to sell his collection in other important department store in New York.
“Saks Fifth Avenue has been my greatest support since the beginning. After Eugenia Sheppard, the Tribune’s great fashion editor, wrote an article about the Duchess of Windsor wearing my jewelry, Adam Gimbel, the president of Saks, called and asked me to lunch. I was rather amused that Saks was more impressed by what the Duchess was wearing than by the quantity of jewelry I was selling up and down Fifth Avenue. Saks asked me if they could use my name exclusively.
I called my stuff “K.J.L.” for other stores and “Kenneth Jay Lane” for Saks. For years, Saks advertised me as “Our own Kenneth Lane”.
In 1962 he was also nominated creative director of one of the most revolutionary American brand of the 50s. Hettie Carnagie. Hettie was a genius. She was the first woman, to buy Dior licenses for the American market, the first to introduce high quality food, which was sold near beautiful couture gowns and she was one of the first designer to introduce a collection of costume jewelry, which had an exquisite appeal.
“About the same time, the Hattie Carnegie organization, which had been one of the great names in fashion when Miss Carnegie was alive, called and wanted me to do a jewelry collection for them. (…)
I ended up telling them that what they really needed was Miss Carnagie back on this earth. (…)
So I took the position of design director of the entire Hattie Carnegie Company. Part of the arrangement with Hattie Carnegie was that I was allowed to run KJL as a separate division, still producing my unique pavè earrings and bracelets and the cobra covered bangles.”
Kenneth Jay Lane often compares his work with the fabulous ideas about costume jewelry of Chanel. They convinced women to wear fakes. In fact he claimed:
“I’ve always thought that great jewelry is art that becomes reality when worn by people.(…) My philosophy was that jewelry should be fun! Earrings aren’t meant to keep a woman’s ear warm, they should sparkle and light up her face.”
He had always been a perfectionist.
“Between the idea and the sketch and the finished sample, there are 23000 telephone calls, three barrels of tears, and a couple of clumps of hair pulled out of one’s head. Once you’ve changed a sample model sixteen times, it doesn’t matter with whom you’re working even if you’re paying them by the hour. They start screaming and yelling and refuse to make one more tiny little change. They’re bored. They’re tired. They say the piece is fine – no one will notice if it’s too heavy, or looks cockeyed, or doesn’t have a nice smile. No, no! I say it all matters terribly.
It’s the difference between life and no life. I’m a part pugilist, part genius, part magician, part wizard, and part snake charmer. The end result is due to something between flirtation and murder.”
He was so in love with his job, that he wanted his bracelets, earrings, brooches looked as real ones. His effort was devoted to find the perfection of materials, to make “frankly fake” chic jewelry.
“From looking at all those marvelous women, I knew what the goods really looked like. So I changed the color of faux emeralds, amethysts, and sapphires to look more like the real thing. In many cases, I wasn’t satisfied with what was available in the market. Now I have my emeralds, rubies, and sapphires especially made for me in Germany because I find the commercial ones made elsewhere off colors. The more commercial faux emeralds are too blue, the rubies too red, and the sapphires, which they insist to call them “Montana sapphires” after a poor grade of American sapphire, I find dull. Many jewelry manufacturers in Providence use only the traditional “gemstone” colors available to them. I’ve always wanted truer, richer colors for my costume jewelry, something finer. I found the factories that make imitation of the best! Why not imitate the best?”
His production was 100% made in USA. He was absolutely proud of the little manufactures that worked for him.
“With the advent of the Second World War, costume jewelry manufacturing centers in Czechoslovakia, Germany, and Austria stopped making jewelry. The factories still in business switched the production to highly technician war materials. The craftsmen who left these war-torn countries went to the United States, knowing that there was a climate for opportunity within the industry in Providence. Once here, they soon added their unique expertise.”
Reading from his auto-biographic book, Kenneth describes himself as a curious person. He adored travelling all around the world, taking inspiration from every place he visited. He claimed that it would be quite impossible to count all his ideas.
“Like so many thoughts and ideas that disappear if they’re not written down. I thought it would be interesting to make a record of some of the results of my creative efforts. It’s been very difficult to make a selection from all the thousands of different things I’ve created over the years since I began in 1962.”
He produced collection inspired by Palazzo Pitti, the Italian Renaissance and the baroque atmosphere of Sicily, which influenced his production of fake corals.
“Among the denizens of the undersea world, branch coral had always been a favorite motifs along with shells and pearls. (…) With coral’s vivid symbolism and flattering color to inspire me, I designed a number of branch coral earrings. I love the look of coral as it curves up against a lady’s ear, perhaps with a diamond or pearl drop. I’ve also used branch coral in Maltese crosses, clasps, and necklaces. I’ve had shells set in metal that had been enameled to look like coral. The effect was magical- the shells actually looked like they were held up by real coral branches. Sometimes I used cabochon turquoise, peridots, and other colored stones, combined with the branches. I even fit a large lion’s paw shell into an elaborate multi-jeweled necklace which could be worn with a ball gown.”
He was fascinated by the greatest collection of jewels of European royal families. The Shatzkammer in Munich, belonging to Bavarian family or the treasure of the Wettin, the kings of Saxony, in Dresden.
“I’ve brought back wonderful ideas for the jewelry from everywhere I traveled. In the late 60s, I went to the British Museum for the first time, with the buyer from Neiman Marcus, which was doing a “British Fortnight” promotion. I had imagined they would have had a good museum shop, like the Metropolitan Museum in New York, with reproduction of pieces from their jewelry collection. There was nothing! I did buy some reproductions of wax seals, which I later copied for my collection. Then we went to the Tower of London, and I was absolutely bowled over by the incredible table-cut stones that Mary of Modena had brought to England when she married James II. The gems where big hunks of white fire. So I decided to do a “Crown Jewels Collection” for the “British Fortnight”. I had molds made in Germany for the stones and cast them in glass, much in the way of the ancient Egypt and Rome.”
Ancient Egypt was an inexhaustible source for new ideas, as well.
“When I returned from my first trip to Egypt, I began designing my first version of Egyptian jewelry. I took many liberties, but kept all within the framework of design for the pharaohs. The cat and the panther were considered sacred beasts, and I adapted the panther from one I saw on the bed of Tutankhamen for a bracelet. I also did an eye of Horus, which is very popular Egyptian symbol.”
Not only Egypt, but also Morocco, India, China, Japan, Spain, pre-Columbian civilizations of Central and South America, Yemen and Tunisia influenced his designs. Kenneth Jay Lane was also famous for using iconic symbols and re-arrange them to create futuristic and modern jewelry to match with the fads of the moment. Maltese crosses and Cartier-inspired snakes bracelets were the most iconic designs that represented his work as a sophisticated jeweler.
Describing his work about the Maltese Cross he used to say: ” I don’t consider myself, literally, an iconoclast- I don’t go around to churches bashing icons or statue of saints. However, I have been known to remove the faces of saints from byzantine crosses and replace them with emeralds, rubies, sapphires, and pearls.(…)
Animal bracelets were one of my great early successes. (…)
Remembering my years designing shoes, I soon started working with my favorite theme, which was animal-skin patterns- of course I had the pattern jeweled. I did pavé leopard, tiger, and zebra patterns in earrings and bracelets.”
My final thoughts
“Through their words” posts are some of my favorite to write. It’s so interesting to read or listen to the stories of the protagonists of fashion history.
I admired Kenneth Jay Lane before, but now, after reading his biography, I think that he is such a talented genius, a great entrepreneur, a curious traveler and a skillful designer.
His taste for elegance and grace and his resolute research of perfection have contributed to make him one the most influential (and copied) jewelry designer of our time.