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On Collecting and Being Collected: An Interview with Kenneth Jay Lane

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Kenneth Jay Lane in His New York City Showroom

Kenneth Jay Lane in His New York City Showroom

- Photo Courtesy of Kenneth Jay Lane
Kenneth Jay Lane, known in collecting circles as simply K.J.L., began his career designing shoes for Christian Dior in the early 1960s. Not long after, he worked with Arnold Scassi making jewelry to coordinate with a line of faux gem-studded shoes. Since "falling 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 sees 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 have also discovered his jewelry through his long-running relationship with the television shopping venue QVC. Still very active in the jewelry business into his 80s, he embraces life with a passion for artistry as he finds it around the world.

K.J.L. as a Collector

Kenneth Jay Lane sold the majority of his collections at auction in the 1970s. "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," Lane said in a telephone interview with About.com’s Pamela Wiggins.

What drew him to seemingly macabre collectibles like memento mori ? "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," Lane shared emphatically.

K.J.L’s Current Collecting Interest

After I selling most of his other collections, Lane began cultivating his interest in Orientalist paintings by building a lovely collection he still enjoys. "I have them from floor to ceiling in my home. I’ve purchased many at auctions in London, Paris and, of course, New York," Lane remarked.

When asked if he has a single prized painting in his collection, Lane added, "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."

Celebrity Collectors of K.J.L. Jewelry

Countless celebrity collectors have owned and appreciated the quality of K.J.L. jewelry. The list of notable celebrities who had specially designed pieces made for them includes Jaqueline Kennedy Onasis, Elizabeth Taylor and Audrey Hepburn, but countless others owned and wore his jewelry.

A pair of Kenneth Jay Lane earrings from the 1960s once owned by Gloria Swanson sold for $512 through Julien’s Hollywood Legends auction in May, 2010. How does it make this renowned designer feel knowing many celebrities have owned and worn his jewelry, including Ms. Swanson? When asked, he 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."

Collecting K.J.L. Jewelry Today

You don’t have to be a celebrity to collect Kenneth Jay Lane jewelry, but you might feel like you need a celebrity salary to afford some of his nicer contemporary pieces. His upscale collections are available through retailers like Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom. These pieces made in more limited quantities will likely be more appealing to jewelry collectors in the future, especially when compared to most of Lane's more recent offerings on QVC.

The QVC lines are mass produced and sell at lower price points. For instance, Lane shared that 85,000 of his "Princess" simulated sapphire rings made to emulate Kate Middleton’s engagement ring had sold through early May in 2011, just after the royal wedding. These rings sold in the $40 range. In comparison, Lane’s coiled serpent rhinestone ring retailed at Neiman Marcus for $250 in 2011.

Avid vintage costume jewelry collectors occasionally add contemporary pieces to their collections. But most often, they seek the grand pieces that made K.J.L. famous in the 1960s and early '70s like those featured in the Barbara Berger collection. Older pieces are marked K.J.L. (with periods behind each letter) with or without a copyright mark. These don’t come cheaply either unless you get lucky. Most early K.J.L. earrings sell in the $150-300 range if not more.

Pieces sold through QVC are known to have been marked “KJL” (no periods) with a proceeding copyright symbol. Other pieces made since 1990 are most often marked "Kenneth Lane" with a copyright symbol except those made for Avon a number of years ago, which are marked as such. K.J.L. for Avon pieces attract a few collectors as well, and were generally well made, but they aren't as desirable to dedicated jewelry collectors as his early work.

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