Neil Lane - The King of Bling
Doing this interview with Neil reminded me of my own introduction to jewelry... My distaste to jewelry starts with one of those "when I was a little girl" stories. But mine was a bit more like, when I was a little Tom boy... I remember walking into my mother's bedroom where she was seated behind her '80s glowing vanity getting glammed up for a party. It was 8:00pm, the party had probably already started, but my mother was still on the putting-on-the-accessories portion of her beauty routine. I came in as she was perusing her congregation of jewels. It could have been costume jewelry, it could have been Elizabeth Taylor-made jewelry, I don’t recall, but what I do remember was what I asked her: “Mom, why is this stuff such a big deal? I mean, why do you ladies even like this stuff so much?” Stuff. Ha! And I also remember my mother answering, with a knowing laugh, "just wait until you're older, you'll change how you feel about this 'stuff'".
Mothers are always right. If there's anything that makes my eyes bug out, my heart pitter patter and take up drawer after drawer in my closet, it's my baubles, my costume jewels that I cherish, and my fine jewelry that I collect. They can be the statement pieces of my day, or the demure trinket that I cherish with all my heart, they can be lavish designer pieces that remind me of my husband's love, or the simple monogrammed necklace that reminds me of my children. Jewelry is more than a means to show off to others; to me, jewelry is more of a sacred personal attachment to a beautiful (and most of the time shiny) object that captures moments in my life. Some folks collect stamps or coins or art throughout history that hang proudly in their homes, but I collect my own history that I hang around my wrist or fingers that brighten up my day, quite literally.
You can imagine my elation when I received an invite for an exclusive look at the Museum of Fine Art’s exhibit, Hollywood Glamour-Fashion and Jewelry from the Silver Screen that opened last year. The exhibit itself was glamour wrapped in gold lamé with a cherry colored diamond on top. My cherry on top was meeting and getting to know the candy man himself, Neil Lane, who was there to show his unbelievable collection of old Hollywood jewelry. Handsome is an understatement, funny, charming, sincere, and one of those people that really engages you with the power of his presence. He told unforgettable stories of each and every one of his jewels, how he acquired them, which old movies they had starred in and what they meant to him. His passion for the stories and for the art of jewelry itself made this man irresistible to listen to -- I truly could have talked to him for weeks.
Coincidentally, only two weeks later, my husband and I were flying to Los Angeles for vacation, and after talking with Neil, I had set up a visit to his Beverly Hills shop to see where all the magic happens. This shop is where Neil shows off his collections of everything from mid-century vintage jewels to his masterfully crafted signature pieces to million dollar strands of diamonds and of course the grandiose sparklers that have donned the bodies of some larger than life celebrities.
Neil is, of course, known as the jeweler to the stars having worked with celebrities like Barbra Streisand, Madonna, Jennifer Lopez, Yoko Ono, Penelope Cruz, Jennifer Aniston, just to name a few. He is also the unforgettable presence during the final rose and ring ceremony on ABC's The Bachelor. But what makes him so special is not his attachment to the stars, but the attachment he has to his jewels. His passion for his craft is contagious and talking with him, you can tell that this is what drives him every day and that's more impressive and powerful than anything Tinseltown can offer.
It was a few weeks later that I finally got to talk with Neil about his life, how he got started and how he came to be the King of Bling. We set up a call while he was starting his sun-filled, palm tree-lined, Pacific ocean laden drive to the Getty Museum. I was on the other line sitting behind my computer in the already iced-over Boston looking out onto bare trees and the 4:00 pm setting sun. If anything could warm me up that day, it would have to be my interview with Neil about jewels, jewels and more jewels!
What’s one of the best guilt trips/stories you’ve ever heard a woman say to get her husband to buy her something? We have a lot of push presents coming in. I don’t know if it’s guilt or excitement or generosity or appreciation. I once had a "couple" come in (I can’t say the name because it wouldn’t be cool), but here’s a great story. Many years ago, a super famous French director (I won’t say who) was in the shop and was with a very pretty girl and I was in the back, and I hear that they were taking out all these diamond bracelets, and I was getting a little concerned, who are they? When I got out to the front of the shop, this woman had on like seven diamond bracelets, cool ones, vintage ones, a lot of them. She was starring in his movie... and he looked at her and said, "Which one would you like?" And she looked at him, rolled her eyes and said, "All of them."
She walked out the door with all of them! Lucky gal.
What’s your favorite stone?
Diamonds... Cushion cut diamonds, each one has a personality!
What are the 3 most treasured pieces in your collection?
Treasured, do you mean value wise or emotional-wise? I have emotional-wise and I have financial stretchers. I have this diamond butterfly: When I was still a teenager, I saw one for sale in New York and at the time, I really had no means to buy this. And 25 years later it came up for sale again, and this time I was able to buy it. It’s a treasured piece because it’s almost 100 carats of diamonds.
Because I’m always trying to learn about jewelry historically, I bought a very beautiful carved moonstone in the shape of a cupid and a dove, it was a Chatelaine watch for a lapel. I bid on it and got it. When I realized that I actually won it, I thought, oh my God, what am I going to do with it? I had this trader in my store, I showed him the piece, and I had this intuitive feeling that it might be a Tiffany’s piece, but with no marks on it. The trader said, nah, this could never be a Tiffany’s piece, which got me even more convinced that it was. I took it home that night and examined it, no marks, no nothing. It was before computers, and I was fascinated by it. I called a friend of mine who worked at Tiffany’s and I was talking to her about this lapel watch. She asked what it looked like, and this went on for hours about what it looked like. She then asked, does it look like a globe with a T in it? And I said, maybe? Then my fax machine started going crazy with historical archival documents from the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago where this watch was exhibited, and was made by Tiffany's specifically for this exhibition. This is how they marked it, with a T and a globe. They didn’t sign Tiffany's. It was quite valuable. This piece was essentially the foundation of my collection. My collection isn’t just about paying the money for it, it’s trying to obtain it, losing sleep, being emotionally involved. It’s a cerebral attachment for everything I do.
What’s your favorite flower?
The tulip. I actually grow tulips, I get thousands from Connecticut and then refrigerate them and have this whole process of growing them. And then I draw them. It's funny that you should ask what my favorite flower is because a lot of my designs for Kay Jewelers are based on the aesthetic of a tulip, the way they flow and how the stem falls.
In 2010, Neil Lane and Kay Jewelers partnered to launch Neil Lane Bridal®, a collection of engagement and wedding rings inspired by the glamour of Hollywood. The Neil Lane Bridal collection is available at Kay Jewelers stores nationwide and online at kay.com.
What is it about Kay Jewelers that made it so enticing to work with them? I’ve been approached by many different people over the years to work with them, like DeBeers when they first came to America. I actually wanted to bring the glamour of Hollywood and all my aesthetic knowledge to a much larger audience. At my couture level, things are quite costly and I wanted to bring this aesthetic and glamour to Americans. There was nothing better than Kay Jewelers because they were the largest jeweler in America.
The meetings I had with them were like a meeting of the minds. They totally understood my vision of everything I learned from Hollywood and from the Golden Age. We worked together to make it aspirational yet obtainable price wise. It’s quite amazing to be working at the highest level of couture, yet working on such a mass level. Everything I learned from my career, knowing what women want, detail, sparkle, design.
I appreciate that people love it so much. I was buying jeans the other day, and this guy comes up to me and says, "Oh my God! My wife loves you!" He had bought his wife a ring from me from Kay's.
Do you work out?
Absolutely! I swim, and I workout. I work out designs in my head. It all unravels when I swim, it puts me in a zen-like state.
What’s the best piece of advice anyone has ever given you in business, love or life?
Do I have a mantra? I’m not sure. Most of my inspiration came from books, my imagination. I didn’t actually have a teacher in the jewelry or design world. I used to walk around as a teen in New York City and look at the shop windows at the jewelry. And I think when I got to go to Europe in my late teens, and I discovered Paris and London and Bond Street. These little jewelry shops, like in the Place Vendôme, those were the big teachers for me. Seeing these things in the windows, but not being able to go in because I was still a student, how involved and emotionally attached I was. And books. Books influenced me. I’m very, very visual.
I read a little bit about the time you spent with your mom. What kind of influence was she for you and your career? When I was little, I was 6? I don’t remember. My mom and I used to take little walks in the park. She told me years later, that when we got home from these walks, she'd empty out my pockets and would find all these bits of colored glass that I had picked up along the way. There was a lady that lived in the neighborhood, she used to come to our basement, we had a little arts and crafts table where she told me about plaster of Paris, and I took these little bits of colored glass and made mosaics out of them. So I was always very fascinated by some sort of color, but not necessarily with jewelry at this time, it was more specifically with drawing, with physical and visual arts. When I was little, they used to show these old films on television, and seeing the movie stars, the jewelry glistening… I don’t know if it was the jewelry or the glistening or the glamour. I don't know, but it captured me.
My mom was very glamorous herself. My parents were a very handsome couple. They used to dance a lot. My father was born in Russia and my mom was born in Manhattan to Russian parents. And my mom used to paint and draw. My father was a businessman but he collected 19th century figurines… it’s something that enamored him. My mom decorated the house with very colorful things. There was definitely an aesthetic. They weren’t necessarily artists, but there was an aesthetic that I think taught me that things have value as an antique.
When I came to California, that’s when it hit me; the combination of the jewelry, glamour, the glitter, the movement. I really developed my style here in Los Angeles, with actual celebrities and movie stars of the contemporary world. Going back and forth from the old world to the contemporary world was quite amazing and the fact that I still do that is even more amazing. When people ask me what my style is, well, I think my style is just, glamour. I think about glamour all the time. I think about that feeling it evokes when women put on their engagement rings. I try to make rings with all the angles and sparkle with diamond details, so they can always see, even when they’re sitting at their desk, and everyone else can see all the little details that they can’t. They want to feel the glamour, they want to feel like they’re the stars.
Speaking of stars, do you have any interesting/gossipy stories about celebrities that we might know?
I have this great, funny story. There was this celebrity, really gorgeous, and she seemed to have been dating a lot of guys. And whenever she got a new boyfriend, she used to send them along to me. And then she would call up and tell me the things she liked and then she would tell me to meet at this hotel and drop them off. We did this a lot. And it was so much fun with her! And she just wanted all her boyfriends to buy her jewelry, she just loved jewelry! I guess it would be more funny if I knew who it was. She went under different aliases. Her name was always different, it was always flower names; one time it would be Rose, another time it was Lily, then it was Dahlia. They were always flowers. Most of the time I'd be dropping off the jewelry at the Beverly Hills Hotel. I was told to leave the jewelry in one room and then I would leave. This was some time ago…
Who was your first celebrity encounter?
Goldie Hawn was one of my first clients. They weren't the same type of celebrity as they are today, young starlets. This was almost 25 years ago, they were more established stars like Barbra Streisand. I was making jewelry that they were wearing on the red carpets in the '90s, friends of producers, I was the guy to go to for engagement rings, it was quite amazing!
As I hear Neil's car engine turn off, I realize that he'd finally arrived at the Getty and had to run to meet his friend. You know those long conversations you have with friends or with incredibly interesting people that have a way of transporting you into their minds, well this is how it was with Neil. I almost felt like I was sitting there next to him in his car weaving down the PCH listening to his stories and honestly, I wish the ride was further than just Malibu.
I can't thank Neil and his incredible team enough for sharing so many private details about his beautiful collection, his life and his passion for what to some are just shiny objects but to Neil, his life's work and his true love.