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Why Boston's MFA Will Be Watching Neil Lane on The Red Carpet

The Huffington Post logo The Huffington Post 23/02/2016

Q&A with the Curator of Jewelry at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston and Hollywood's Red Carpet Jeweler, Neil Lane 2016-02-23-1456238284-7868718-DSC_0357.jpg © Provided by The Huffington Post 2016-02-23-1456238284-7868718-DSC_0357.jpg
By Heidi Legg
Hollywood is awash in glitter, glamour, and experimentation this week as stylists, designers, and jewelers clamor for influence on the Red Carpet at the Academy Awards. Back in Boston, February doldrums have set in with sub-zero temperatures leaving the pale northeast native scavenging for morsels of color in salt-stained boots and tired winter coats that shed feathers. Where could there possibly be a crossover?
In an unusual pairing of scholarly study and Hollywood performance, Emily Stoehrer, the Rita J. Kaplan and Susan B. Kaplan Curator of Jewelry at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston will watch closely this week as her dissertation subject, jeweler to the stars Neil Lane, adorns everyone from Madonna to Jennifer Lawrence on the Red Carpet. Yes, he is the same celebrity who appears on the Bachelor with designer engagement rings and who lent his name to Kay Jewelers to supply the masses. Yet, Stoehrer takes pause on what she says is a dual legacy of collector and marketing genius, and narrows in on the one legacy she covets and labels as a magnificent collection with some of the most important pieces from the 20th Century. I sat down with the two of them, separately, to discover how this Hollywood jeweler to the stars built his collection and how he has caught the stern eye of one of the great institutions long run by Boston Brahmin blue-blood elite.
Neil, this is our most glamorous interview yet.
N: It is, for me.
Thank you for making the time.
N: I'll do anything. No, we're not busy. No, we're really not. We only have 350 pieces of jewelry out for the Academy Awards.
Emily Stoehrer from the blue-blood bastion of Boston's MFA is studying your work from a scholarly angle. What do you think of this?
N: Isn't this crazy? Emily decides to do her thesis on me and she says, 'you did this and that by yourself and you don't have any backing. You didn't have any money. How did you do this?' If I had been schlepping around in Paris at four o'clock in the morning at the flea markets in the bitter cold because I thought I was going to be rich and famous - are you crazy?
But I loved it. I was fascinated by this stuff, going to Kovel's Antiques to understand what the hell I had found. 'Oh look, there's a mark on the bottom.' I didn't know things had been marked on the bottom. I had the best time. You have to understand before I got serious about business, I was the most carefree happy guy in the world. I was going out to the Bowery with other artists and I was garbage picking. I was painting. I was exhibiting. I didn't have to worry about my art being sold because I was making money at the flea market selling vintage posters.
How did you originally start collecting vintage jewels?
N: I started collecting things people threw out on the street. They weren't even called 'collectibles.' There was no name for it because it was mostly junk and, as a little kid, I was fascinated by it. I was fascinated by my neighborhood, by the old people and the old houses. When I started college, it became a hobby. I was painting and drawing at art school and I started selling all these things I'd found at the flea market. When I made enough money, the first thing I did was go to Paris. That's where I learned Western Art, where I discovered the whole world of Paris and the whole world of the Art Nouveau. I started collecting very, very slowly and carefully because I didn't have the means to collect.
With the jewelry, I was still in my aesthetic stage and I was looking for interesting things. I wasn't necessarily looking for platinum and diamonds. I wouldn't have understood it. I was still more aesthetically involved in Art Nouveau and the nuance of lines. In London, I learned about Merle Bennett and Liberty & Company and Archibald & Knox. It was lots of bits of silver with little blue enamels and little vases and cigarette cases that were fifty dollars to 100 pounds. In Paris I would go around to the antique shops and look around for little bits of gold Art Nouveau. If I told you how I developed my eye, it was because I didn't have any money.
It sounds like the famous 10,000-hour rule coined by Malcolm Gladwell.
N: It was a process. If I saw something at a flea market, let's say a two-handle vase and it was $100, I didn't buy it because I wasn't sure. Then I went on to the next booth twenty feet away and I saw something similar and that was also $100, and I kept seeing something similar. Before I'd spent $100, I really needed to teach myself about what I was buying. Let's say a couple hours later I saw something for $300 and it had three handles instead of two handles - that's how I taught myself. I kept on looking and looking and looking and looking before I spent the money.
I didn't have a teacher. I didn't really have a mentor. I studied at the Art Students League and I studied with some well known artists, but in jewelry, I had no mentor. I learned by looking and then I bought books. I bought every book that ever came out on jewelry whether it was fifty dollars, thirty-five dollars, or seventy dollars. That's something I did that other people didn't. I absorbed the images. I didn't have a clue coming from Brooklyn what a piece of jewelry with a maker's mark on it meant. I didn't know anything like that. I learned and learned and learned. What you said about the 10,000 hours, I think I probably put fifty billion hours in it.
Emily, why did you decide to study Neil Lane?
E: I first met Neil six years ago as he prepared to give a lecture on his collection at the MFA when I was a curatorial research fellow there. I was the assistant to Yvonne Markowitz who was then the jewelry curator. After that, he and I would talk on the phone and he'd ask me for my opinion.
How did you come to do your thesis on his work?
E: Yvonne had known Neil forever. They had gone to jewelry camp together in Orono, Maine, which was started by Ruth and Dr. Joe Sataloff in 1979, who was very fond of and friendly with Yvonne. Years later, in 2012, when I was choosing my dissertation topic, he came up in conversation. The conversation was around how he had this amazing collection and that he was doing this really interesting thing in Hollywood and on the red carpet creating an interest in vintage jewels. At the same time, the average consumer of red carpet images doesn't necessarily know they're seeing vintage jewelry. They have to dig a little bit to realize that what he's showing as the Neil Lane collection is actually, oftentimes, very historic.
When you met, Neil had already been in LA a long time. When do you see his work and the red carpet intersect?
E: Jewelry was really becoming more and more prominent on the red carpet and I didn't know why. It was interesting in my research to explore this, which brought me to LA and led me to significant research into the Jewelers Circular Keystone (JCK), an industry periodical like Women's Wear Daily. Basically in the 1990s a group called the Diamond Information Center decided that Hollywood would be a good place to disseminate jewelry as a way to get Americans to want to wear more diamond jewelry. They arrive on the scene and one of the few jewelers was Neil Lane with his small booth in an antique center. The Diamond Information Center really helped him to access that world.
He was also showing something totally different. I interviewed stylist Rachel Zoe - the biggest - and she talked about how Neil's jewels often were appealing to her clients because they were different and bold. I think that because there was this commercialism creeping into Hollywood, vintage jewelry or fashion also offered an 'other.' It was something that seemed somehow not commercial and something where you could be one of a kind and unique because the jewels were one of a kind. At the time of my thesis, Neil was already working for Kay Jewelers and Jared, and many people knew him for those mainstream commercial ventures. Even today, people don't necessarily know the many layers that he's working on nor about his work as an artist.
Once people started buying your work, did you know you were becoming a movement in Hollywood?

N: Oh, my God. No. No. If you had said to me years ago that one day you're going to be in Hollywood designing jewels, not only selling them to the most famous people in the world, the most beautiful, and being involved in red carpets and being with Kay Jewelers and designing rings for America, I would've probably said, 'you're crazy. You're nuts. I don't want to do that.'

Early on you worked with Madonna. How did that come to be?

N: Madonna has probably been my biggest muse. I have worked with Madonna for probably eighteen years. I created the giant M for her for the Gap campaign. Again, it was collaboration. She wasn't going to just give me this gig for the Gap thing. She really wanted to see if I could handle it and she had every jeweler in the world on the trailer sets. But I kept on coming up with more jewels and more designs and more jewels. She was the first one to take jeans upscale and she did it with Missy Elliott for Gap.
The Saturday before the shoot, I had these two diamond necklaces on her neck and she was looking in the mirror at the studio. It was like kismet. She said, 'I need something. Something's missing' and I think it was her - I give her the credit -- 'it needs a giant M' and that night I kept the workshop open and we made a giant diamond M. That became such a huge rage and she wore her M everywhere afterward.
Are all the stones Neil uses vintage?
E: Sometimes. That's really how he got started and I've been interested in the Hollywood red carpet story of his career. Celebrities would either be drawn to old stones or old settings and he would sometimes make a ring around a stone that he was given or had found for them, or find a stone for a ring that they had. Or he designed one inspired by things that he had in his shop. For him, it's always been a mix of old and new and the complexity of it is what I think defines him.
N: When I did start to design jewelry, I was actually using old stones. Living in Paris, that was my aesthetic. I didn't have a contemporary design because I'm living in the contemporary but my aesthetic was something from the past. When I stated to design, the word 'vintage' didn't exist out here, Heidi. I started using it but it didn't really exist. Now it has a meaning but it didn't before. No one really can define vintage. If you ask someone who's twenty-one what vintage is - 'I don't know. It looks old and it's cool.'
I first came to Hollywood with a bag of antique jewelry and I started working with a lot of young people in Hollywood. Red carpets weren't as popular and they certainly didn't have so many starlets. They didn't have Netflix or all these content players. The biggest movie stars when I came here were Barbra Streisand and Goldie Hawn. And Goldie Hawn used to bring her daughter Kate as a little girl to my little counter to try on jewelry. When Kate got engaged for the first time to Chris Robinson, her ring came from me.
These young starlets were reverting back to the 1950s, and jewelers like Harry Winston loved putting these big diamond necklaces on these girls. I could see something was wrong. Before that, you would see Armani, the king of the red carpets, with very simple jewelry like a diamond bracelet: a line bracelet, diamond studs, or a diamond bar broach. I'm not talking about Elizabeth Taylor but the young starlets. I started making diamond chains, Edwardian chains, and I made colorful earrings in a Renaissance style and a Victorian style and the people I was dealing with asked me, 'could we wear that? Could we borrow that?' At that time, I didn't understand anything about loaning jewelry. It's a long history.
When we look at Neil through his public persona, there is this dichotomy. As a curator of historic jewelry owned by royalty and major collectors, how do you deal with this?
E: It's been interesting to do this research and dive into the '90s and 2000s because you see that fashion does things first and then jewelry takes a few years to catch up. If we look ten years ago, we saw a lot of fashion designers doing capsule collections and putting their name along with Target or H & M in the same way Neil Lane put his name with Kay Jewelers and Jared. He's making his name available to a much larger audience because before that his brand was so exclusive. He still has that exclusivity in his own high-end designs, and in many ways the vintage jewels are his babies and what really inspires all of his other work.
What do you think Emily is capturing?
N: She's recognizing something in me that I don't really spend much time thinking about. What she's saying to me is 'Neil, do you realize that you have a profound effect on fashion and the jewelry industry? Do you realize that?' And I think she's wanted to chronicle it and try to understand it.
From my perspective, I might say, 'Okay, I see that. I see that my years in France, my years of studying vintage and the aesthetic and creating diamond rings have really altered the whole bridal scene in America.' I can see, yes, that my coming to Hollywood changed the aesthetic. People are more comfortable wearing color on the red carpet and wearing different things. Yes. But for me it's just my journey and someone talking about it is pleasant. As a human being, your whole life is captured in three seconds. Your brain can see everything in fifty seconds from the beginning. I see myself as a little boy in Brooklyn; I see him going to Paris; I see myself at the flea markets. It's all very quick. But it did take years and years and years to get here.
Emily, what will be Neil's legacy?
E: I believe he has a dual legacy. First, he has a legacy as a collector who lends his things to important museum exhibitions. We had some jewelry here last fall and he's lent more recently to an exhibition in Chicago. Then there is the legacy of commercial Jared and Kay Jewelers and the Bachelor where you actually see Neil Lane and you see some of his own designs.
For many people, they'll remember him that way and think of him as this celebrity jeweler and a celebrity in his own right with his appearances on TV. But for museum-goers, and someone interested in the history of jewelry, he's assembled this magnificent collection with some of the most important pieces from the 20th Century. These collector pieces have all kinds of tangible memories of Hollywood history or jewelry history and that's the story I'd like more people to know about.
You work at one of the most blue blood institutions in the country and yet, we are talking about Neil Lane and the Hollywood red carpet. Does this surprise you?
E: It's interesting. Boston is typically not a place where you see a lot of flashy jewels - except at the MFA. We're actually the first museum in the country to have a full time curator of jewelry, and that's thanks to Susan Kaplan who endowed my position in her family foundation. Susan has been really involved with the museum with her passion and love of jewelry for many years, and it's actually a conversation with her that led me to think about doing my dissertation on Neil's collection.
I think we're doing something really exciting and different in Boston. While Boston traditionally doesn't have this reputation for being interested in jewelry, I think that we've broken that stereotype here at the museum. People come here and they're almost immediately met with our jewelry gallery and it's become a real hot spot in the museum. I think people are really eager to see what we're collecting and what we're doing.
Neil, if any of your pieces go into a museum, which piece would you choose?
N: The things that I've done in America - I think the things I created for Madonna on all her stage shows and all the M's and the jewel that I created for her Rebel Heart Tour. I created an amazing jewel for her. I might give you a picture with that. I've never given that to anyone. The picture she used on her album is her face wrapped up in cords. You'll see it. It's white. I took that idea of wrapping it in cords with string and I took the rebel heart motif. I created a heart wrapped up in strings and diamonds and then I used celestial material. I used meteorite to create it so it would give it energy. It's called Rebel Heart.
Read the full interview with Neil Lane and Emily Stoehrer at and subscribe for free to read about new ideas every two weeks from Cambridge, America's Petri Dish.

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