Looking Back: A Conversation with Kenneth Jay Lane

by Pamela Wiggins Siegel
 

A few years before his passing in 2017, I had the opportunity to meet Kenneth Jay Lane in his New York showroom. Even though my visit was impromptu, Lane graciously greeted me as a fan of his early work. I had the good fortune to follow that meeting with a phone conversation about his life, passions, and work as a jewelry designer. Before I share some of that experience with you, here’s a little background on his career.
 

Kenneth Lane with Diana Vreeland

French-born fashion designer Diana Vreeland (1901 – 1989) and American jewelry designer Kenneth Jay Lane sit together during a supper party at the Four Seasons restaurant, New York City, August 11, 1976. (Photo by Larry C. Morris/New York Times Co./Getty Images)

An Intro to K.J.L.’s Career
 

Lane began his jewelry career working with fashion designer Arnold Scassi making pieces to coordinate with a line of faux gem-studded footwear. When his designs caught the eye of the Duchess of Windsor in 1963, and society reporters began signing his praises thereafter, stylish women the world over wanted to own his jewelry.
 
Since he “fell into” the business more than 50 years ago, Lane’s fabulously fake costume jewelry has been owned, worn and collected by celebrities, the wives of American presidents, and royalty alike. He saw his jewelry as “art that becomes reality when worn by people.” Lane’s pieces from the 1960s are coveted by collectors today, and his more upscale lines still retail in high-end department stores and boutiques. Countless admirers also discovered his jewelry through QVC over a span of more than 20 years.
 
Learn more about the way Kenneth Jay Lane jewelry has been marked over time by visiting the RCJ Marks Guide. Find out more about his life and career through the books linked below.
 
My Interview with K.J.L.
 
K.J.L. was in his 80s when I spoke with him and pleased to still be active in his business. He never stopped embracing life with a passion for artistry as he found it around the world. Here are some of the questions I eagerly posed to him:

Kenneth Jay Lane Earrings

Kenneth Jay Lane earrings c. 1970 on paper card hand autographed “Kenneth Lane.” Photo by Jay B. Siegel for ChicAntiques.com.

 
Q. What are some of the collections you’ve been passionate about in the past?
 
A. I sold the majority of my collections years ago. This included my memento mori collection and renaissance bronzes, along with other varied things. Things I’ve loved and collected have also come and gone as I’ve moved, whether upsizing or downsizing, over the years.
 
Q. What drew you to collect memento mori, with its death-related motifs?
 
A. I’m not sure, really. The skulls were certainly intriguing, and they’re very popular in jewelry design now. One thing I can say though, in spite of my past attraction to memento mori, my jewelry lines have never included skulls. Ever.
 
Q. What do you collect now?
 
A. After I sold most of the other collections, I began collecting Orientalist paintings. I have them from floor to ceiling in my home. I’ve purchased many at auctions in London, Paris and, of course, New York.
 
Q. Do you have a single prized painting in your collection?
 
A. Yes, a big, probably nine-foot tall, work by Benjamin Constant. It depicts a prince lounging and looking down over a wall at a tiger. It’s quite impressive. They will all go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art here in New York eventually. I have a wing there.
 
Q. A pair of your earrings once owned by Gloria Swanson sold for a nice sum at auction recently. How does it make you feel knowing many celebrities have owned and worn your jewelry?

Press Photo of Kenneth Jay Lane

Kenneth Jay Lane later in life. Photo courtesy of Kenneth Jay Lane.

 
A. 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.
 
Q. What can you share with us about leading a passionate life?
 
A. Leading a passionate life is rather exhausting! When I’m not traveling, I’m here in my showroom in New York. But all in all, I can honestly say I do exactly as I please.
 
Q. Is anything else exciting going on with you now?
 
A. Yes, I’m selling in new places around the world. One that thrills me right now is the Covered Bazaar in Istanbul because I love that venue. I can’t wait to see that.
 
Q. What are some of your other passions?
 
A. Good food, lots of good food. And travel. In fact, I just came back from Italy. Venice is a passion – I have to go there every year to stay in touch with my roots. I’m also a director at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art.
 
So, while K.J.L. had a reputation of being rather arrogant during his career and, in his later years, somewhat of a curmudgeon, that was never my experience with him. I count my meeting and conversation with him as some of my most treasured experiences as a collectible jewelry enthusiast.
 
Learn more about Kenneth Jay Lane’s life and work through these book resources:
 

Kenneth Jay Lane: Faking It by Kenneth Jay Lane and Harrice Simmons Miller
 

Shamelessly, Jewelry from Kenneth Jay Lane by Nancy N. Schiffer
 

Kenneth Jay Lane: Fabulous Jewelry & Accessories by Nancy N. Schiffer
 

Pamela Wiggins Siegel is a co-founder of Costume Jewelry Collectors Int’l LLC and the author of “Warman’s Costume Jewelry.” Visit her at www.chicantiques.com.