Kenneth Jay Lane died on Thursday in New York at age 85. Labeled by Time Magazine as the “undisputed King of Costume Jewelry,” Lane leaves behind a legacy that forever elevated costume jewelry. As the industry’s foremost pioneer in the formerly chartered territory between fine and faux jewels, Lane’s creations – a result of both imagination and innovation – drew fans amongst the society crowd and QVC shoppers alike.
Detroit, Michigan-born Lane got his start in 1954 working on Vogue’s art team before venturing into design at Delman Shoes and then working for Roger Vivier during his tenure at Christian Dior. He ultimately launched his eponymous label in New York in 1961, and over the span of his 50-year career, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Nancy Reagan, Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn (who wore a five-strand pearl necklace designed by Lane in Breakfast at Tiffany’s), and Princess Diana, were spotted in Lane’s designs. More recently, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Angelina Jolie, Michelle Obama, and Kate Middleton have taken to Kenneth Jay Lane designs.
As for his greatest design influence, Lane looked to Diana Vreeland. It is the late Vogue editor-in-chief, who Lane unabashedly credited for his wild, unimaginable success in launching something of a novel industry: What was then seen as practice of merely making fakes and copies, his work – and that of many others – is now celebrated as costume jewelry.
Straddling the line between creating jewelry that was both luxurious-looking and more accessible to a wider audience than ever before, Lane was a firm believer that glamour should be an attainable, everyday luxury. In proffering this new spin on faux baubles – which he said was more about taste than the authenticity of the stones that made up a necklace – Lane “changed the landscape of costume jewelry, adding souped-up color, drama, luxury and a wide variety of ethnic motifs, and making it exclusive. Many of his customers combined his pieces with their ‘real’ jewels…and it was often impossible to tell the difference,” wrote WWD this week.
"Kenneth Jay Lane is a nonconformist who changed the perception of the establishment toward costume jewelry. He even got the Duchess of Windsor and a host of British royals to wear costume jewelry — unheard of at the time," says British filmmaker Gisele Roman, who wrote, produced and directed the film, Fabulously Fake: The Real Life of Kenneth Jay Lane. "His designs still define the modern era."
Lane’s designs resonated with his high profile clients because he approached costume jewelry as if it were couture, with bold colors, dramatic silhouettes, and quality “jewels” that often looked real, even though they were made of glass or plastic. And in a testament to Lane’s work, these pieces are still very much in demand.
Both new and vintage Kenneth Jay Lane creations regularly show up on the most important red carpets of the year, worn by some of Hollywood’s biggest names. At a 1996 Sotheby’s auction of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s jewelry, a faux pearl necklace with a crystal clasp by Lane went for $211,500, “evidencing,” according to W Magazine, “not only Kennedy’s lingering cultural capital, but also that of Lane.”
After all, “elegance, luxury and good taste,” Lane once said, “never go out of style.”