KING OF FAUX
BY MARY MCFADDEN
Man worships gold. From archaic times man has adorned himself in this life and in the aflerlife with gold. The Jews danced around a golden calf defying Moses when he came down from the mount with two tablets that would last for all time. Jason searched the known world for the Golden Fleece, a sheepskin for panning gold from the rivers. Herodus records that the Lydians' were the first people to mint gold coins. Women accumulated gold coinage to create their own dowries so they would have the freedom to choose their husbands. One day the K.J.L. coin will be sold at par with the Alexandrian, the oldest known coin.
Phidias clothed his great statue of Athena in the Parthenon in a cloak of gold. The King of Thailand changes the Emerald Buddha, seated on his aerial throne, to a golden mesh tunic at the 4th Season. The Duchess of Windsor is rumored to have been buried in her crystal and gold K.J.L. belt.
Kenneth Jay Lane understands the splendor of gold. He uses jeweler's metal and electro plating to give us a feeling of the riches of our ancient heritage. As Diana Vreeland once said you always need something of barbaric gold to take the curse off a 'robe de style,' meaning a black velvet ball gown. Kenny designs Pre Columbian pectorals, Islamic tribal jewels, and Tamil Nadu priests' golden ceremonial breastplates.
K.J.L. grew up in Detroit. His fantasies at Rhode Island School of Design were Imperial, show biz, and Mae West. KJL's design career started inauspiciously. On a spring day in 1963, I remember him hocking his jewels down 5th Avenue, dressed in a sculpted Savil Row suit, a Windsor knotted tie, and a Mickey Mouse watch. We were both working for Christian Dior at the time. He had a handful of plastic bangles and earrings that he had bought at a dime store and covered them with rough rhinestone crystals on a painted black ground. I thought that kind of stuff was unsaleable. Then, came a series of leopard and zebra patterned bangles. The columnist Eugenia Shepard wrote, "Kenneth Jay Lane's rise in the costume jewelry world has been nothing short of a comet." Eleanor Lambert said "Kenneth Lane created costume jewelry."
In his apartment as in his downtown house of an earlier period, K.J.L. creates atmospheres that reveal years of Grand Tour vacations. Huge billiard table lights hang above the living room. Fake potted palm trees and painted cactus are the sentinels of the luncheons. His is the best rolodex in town: Earl of Warwick, Jackie Onassis, Brooke Astor, the Maharaja of Jodhpur, Princess Ruspoli, H.R.H. Princess Michael of Kent, and Elizabeth Taylor. Orientalists pictures mix with zebra stripes. Books are piled high like the Leaning Tower of Pisa; magazines are stacked into towers of Babel, monuments to absolute clutter. K.J.L. has an endless curiosity, and probably could teach a world history class at Columbia University with the family trees of American and European aristocracy thrown in for fun.
K.J.L.is an explorer of the imagination. It started with Noah's Ark: caparisoned elephants with pearls hanging off their trunks, snakes as exquisite as Sarah Bernhard's enamel serpent, turtles encrusted with rubies, swans drinking diamonds, paved leopards, emerald-eyed frogs, unicorns with crystal horns. These fanciful jewels were created in his Providence, Rhode Island workshop.
Kenny is inspired by the great jewelers of our time: Cartier, Schlumberger, Verdura, Van Cleef & Arpels, David Webb, Belperron, Seaman Schepps, Jar, and Chanel. We could wear their fantastical designs for under $500. We could be Cinderella for a night. K.J.L. recreated English crown jewels, dating back to Mary of Modena, in crystal, dazzling by candlelight. There were conversation pieces: Ming China dragon jade lariats, Egyptian tomb body adornments, and the gold masks of the Inca King Atahualpa.
A few years ago, Kenny and I took a trip to Germany to see King Ludwig's castles and palaces. There we visited K.J.L.'s German dealer to buy colored stones to be set in his Maharaja necklaces. Kenny rolled up his sleeves, looking like a sorter at De Beers Central Selling Organization deciding on Harry Winston's parcel. K.J.L., like the master jeweler that he is, works on his wax models for years before they meet his eye of perfection. I have seen him mentally photograph any jewel that takes his fancy at a party. Magically, it appears for sale in his showroom.
On another trip to Capadocia in Turkey, the tribal center of the rug market: Kenny told me, "Look rich when we go down to dinner." I overloaded on diamond rings, K.J.L. triple strand baroque pearls, and a pair of Van Clef ruby drop earrings. By 11 that evening, all the rug dealers were hovering around our table, inviting us to their emporiums. The power of K.J.L. baroque pearls!
K.J.L.'s final achievement was to find the production facilities to produce his oeuvre to the wider American audience. Jewels under $100, he sells with anecdotes, jibes, and grand sophistication on QVC.
Carol Channing wore K.J.L. diamonds in 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes' and occasionally threw them to her audience.
A K.J.L. diamond is forever.