Jorge Socarras: I’m here with famed jewelry designer Kenneth Jay Lane, whose amazing career of almost fifty years has been an amalgam of creative vision, social prowess and business savvy. His delightful book, “Faking It,” is storied with as many glittering personalities as it is fabulous jewelry designs. I’m hoping Mr. Lane will give us a few insights into his career, his creativity, and his sense of style. Hello, Mr. Lane. Thank you so much for having us here in your beautiful home, first of all.
Kenneth Jay Lane: Well after that introduction, what can I say?
JS: I’m sure there’s lots more, hopefully. I’d like to start at the beginning. Your remarkable career as a jewelry designer started at an equally remarkable time, the early 1960s. How would you describe your mindset as a young designer working in NY and Paris in the early 1960s?
KJL: Ah, good heavens, my mindset! Well, I had half a mind then; I think it’s grown a bit, I hope. I hadn’t studied jewelry design, but I was very fortunate because I’d seen a lot of very good jewelry on ladies. I wrote in my book about snake bracelets going up the wonderful long arm of Marella Agnelli, a woman who had great style, and one sort of stuck in my mind, so one of the first things I ever did were snake bracelets. But actually it’s just perchance I did some jewelry for a collection by Arnold Scaasi, who was a very important designer then and we were making shoes for him. The shoes had flat-back rhinestones glued on in a special way so they didn’t come off, and they were on the tips of shoes, on the heels, and sometimes the entire shoe – women could dance in them, walk in them and they stuck. So I thought, in conversation with Arnold, why don’t we do some buttons to match the shoes? And then the buttons developed into earrings, and into bracelets. I knew nothing about jewelry manufacturing, so I bought plastic bracelets at the 5 & 10 and had them covered with stones. My next great idea again came from shoes: covering plastic bracelets with cobra skins, snakeskin and even alligator skins. I had those done by the people who covered the heels of shoes in the factory. And the rest is history.
JS: So would you say there was a lot of experimenting in the beginning?
KJL: Oh, yes, yes!
JS: But you did get ideas of what you wanted to see.
KJL: Well, I went through various stages. There was a moment of Pop Art, so I did Pop Art jewelry. And there were all those various sort of fads, which I went along with for a little bit and played with. Then I got really involved. You see, fashionable women in the early 60’s didn’t really wear costume jewelry. Costume jewelry sold in department stores, but it was much more middle of the road – little broaches for a lady to wear to church on Sunday. A woman wore earrings the way she wore gloves. I started having fun with jewelry. Fortunately, I knew some very attractive New York ladies who started picking up on my stuff, including the marvelous Diana Vreeland, who was then editor of Harper’s Bazaar.
JS: When did feel or get a sense that you had arrived as a jewelry designer?
KJL: I suppose when I was able to pay my bills. I started in a very small way and was very fortunate because within about a month I was selling in every store on Fifth Avenue. It was easier then because it was pre-computers, pre-computer codes. If something was in a magazine, it could be in Saks Fifth Avenue’s window the next day – that’s almost impossible today.
JS: One of the things that really comes across from your book is how asides from your wonderful jewelry designs, you came to be revered as a personality for your own personal sense of style and your charm, and so many fabulous women have befriended you over the years.
KJL: Aren’t they lucky?
JS: I’d say so! And I’m not even going to name them – there’s too many to name. If anybody wants to know they should read your book because that’s part of the fun of it.
KJL: I was very fortunate, and I will name just a few because after they left us, their jewelry and other things were sold at auction. One of them was the Duchess of Windsor, and they found ten years after she died about twenty-eight pieces of my jewelry, which were sold at the big Windsor sale for huge amounts of money. Even more so, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, who was a wonderful friend. I think my jewelry went for over a million dollars at the sale – costume jewelry! The only thing I ever made on commission for anyone, I made for Jackie. She asked me to do a version of this Van Cleef necklace that I’d never seen her wear. It went for $90,500. And three strands of pearls that were not extraordinary – just very normal pearls – went for $211,000 at auction.
JS: With all the marvelously glamorous women you’ve known, is there a trait these very stylish women have in common – something identifiable?
KJL: I think a sense of themselves. And they haven’t all been rich women; some of the most fashionable women that I’ve known were not rich – some were, some weren’t. Some of them were extraordinary beauties – not pretty necessarily, but wonderful looking – a wonderful aura about them. There are still some women who are beautifully dressed in New York, who have a great sense of style: Mica Ertegun, whose husband, Ahmet Ertegun, started Atlantic Records; Annette de la Renta – Oscar’s wife; Carolina Hererra, who designs herself. There are so many attractive women. There are a lot of attractive young women too.
KJL: Happily. Unfortunately, there are women celebrities who wear borrowed clothes and don’t know how to move in them – they just stand in them. It takes time, you know. A little girl puts on her mother’s jewelry, clothes, hats, shoes that are much too big for her, looks in the mirror – she’s play-acting, but that’s the beginning. Then she’s got to grow into it. It’s hard to grow into it if you’ve only worn blue jeans all your life.
JS: Among the many wonderful women, some of which you’ve named, you mentioned Diana Vreeland – she obviously had a special place in your life. What’s something you learned from such an extraordinary women?
KJL: What I learned from Diana Vreeland was positive thinking.
KJL: Yes. If it wasn’t positive, it didn’t exist. And that is a wonderful psychology to follow. Another might be: don’t really expect anything because anything that happens then is wonderful. You know, she was very philosophical; it wasn’t only fashion. And of course her beau mots were extraordinary – some of them by mistake.
JS: Supposedly the “Think Pink” number from Funny Face was inspired by her.
KJL: Oh yes. She was going to come to India with me when I went, and didn’t at the last minute. Her motto then was, “Shocking pink is the navy blue of India.” So I sent her a wire from India: “Can’t stand all this navy blue!”
JS: (laughs) Regarding style, fashion obviously can be studied; it can be emulated. Can style be learned and cultivated?
KJL: Oh absolutely. You know, women shouldn’t be afraid of clothes or accessories. Everything should suit the lady who’s wearing it, of course, but it isn’t a matter of size or shape. For instance, Helena Rubinstein, who was 5 by 5 – she was really like a square – had great style because she was obviously aware of her style and her looks, but wore a lot of jewelry. It was very curious: when she died her jewelry was sold at auction, and some of the stones were real and some were fake. Lets say, a necklace with five strands of pearls that looked wonderful on her – half of them were not real.
JS: Interesting. What would you say is a strong point of style for American women? What do you think they have most going for them?
KJL: Dress to suit yourself. Have a three-way mirror. (laughs) Don’t be afraid… well, in my case, of jewelry. With precious jewelry, if a lady’s wearing six strands of real pearls, it would be showing off her wealth. But six strands of imitation or simulated pearls – that’s fashion.
JS: When you’re out and about town, what do you notice about the way people look?
KJL: I try not to. (both laugh)
JS: When a woman goes shopping for jewelry, what should she take into consideration? If she sees something she thinks is beautiful and feels she has to have it, is that enough?
KJL: That’s plenty. You know, if you think of the great jewelers – Tiffany, Cartier, etcetera – they don’t change their collection every year. Elsa Peretti’s jewelry at Tiffany is still their best selling collection and it hasn’t changed in fifty years.
JS: Amazing. What would you say to a young woman today who’s aspiring to great style?
KJL: That’s a very difficult question. Not every woman has to aspire to great style – there are other things in life. But style isn’t only about the way she looks. It’s the way she walks; it’s the way she talks – voice is important. It’s the way she lives. I mean, great style isn’t just on the street; it’s in her house. And again a woman doesn’t have to be rich to have an attractive house. You don’t have to be rich to entertain. You could make spaghetti for people and they’re very happy. Some of the best dinners I’ve ever been to were just spaghetti dinners with salad and cheese. Depends on the people who are there. What’s curious is that while driving to the airport there are all these tall buildings, and if you look into most of the windows you see white. People are afraid of color. But with style, one shouldn’t be afraid. One should have fun with it. The whole thing with fashion is fun. When I was growing up, women on the street wore hats or flowers in their hair, or little combs with funny things, and gloves – there were so many more things that gave women pleasure. Then that terrible thing called minimalism came along! (JS laughs) It takes the pleasure out of dressing. On the street when you see a woman in a red coat, you really look because it cheers the whole street up. Color cheers one up. I believe that a woman should wear, say, turquoise beads or earrings, or coral in the middle of winter. If she’s all in gray, the color picks up the costume. So many colors one sees on the street today are rather boring, quite honestly.
JS: Those are very good tips. And speaking of fun and enjoying things, you mentioned before that the most important thing is that you still love what you do. Is there anything else you could imagine having done that you would love as much as making jewelry? Not to say that that’s the only thing you do.
KJL: Well, I used to paint when I was in school. I painted the same church out of my window in Providence, Rhode Island, about twelve times. When I came to New York, I got busy – I’d been having too much fun – and my brushes dried out. I put them in turpentine and they disintegrated! So perhaps I would have liked to have been a painter.
JS: Yet the artist in you very much stayed alive and expressed himself through your work – there is continuity, obviously.
KJL: Well, I’m very fortunate. For me, my designing my business is like a hobby – more than a hobby; it’s a great enjoyment. And hopefully my things have a slight lightness of touch, a bit of humor, because I think humor is very important. It’s important for style too. I mean, a lady has to laugh at herself sometimes.
JS: I think all the qualities you mention definitely come across in your jewelry designs. They come through you as well – you’re a delight, as is your work. It’s such a pleasure to be here speaking with you, and I want to thank you so much.
KJL: Well, thank you. It’s a pleasure talking to you too.
JS: Thank you, Mr. Lane.