The Magic of Hollywood
Jewelry designer to the stars Neil Lane on combining the dazzle of vintage with the function of modern

Fresh off the plane from Israel on an energy tour with the Kabbalah Centre, Neil Lane, jewelry designer extraordinaire, sat down with Equally Wed to discuss rings, gay marriage, Ellen and Portia and his new partnership with Kay Jewelers.

Neil Lane, Courtesy of Neil Lane

EQUALLY WED: How did the partnership start between you and Kay?

NEIL LANE: It’s so funny! I guess I’ve always been invested on many levels of how things happen—probably happening millenniums ago in a spiritual sense that I was supposed to be with them, because they’re like America’s jeweler. In a physical sense, though, it was about 10 months ago. I’ve been looking for the perfect partner to bring my aesthetic and what I think about glamour and bridal to America. I’ve always been looking for someone like that—in a big picture way. This kind of materialized out of thin air. I mean really, there wasn’t any rhyme or reason that we met. I guess it was kismet. It was supposed to be.

EW: We noticed everything in the first collection is all old Hollywood—very vintage. What was the inspiration for this?

NL: For the last 20 years or so, I’ve spent it designing rings and bridal stuff for Hollywood. I’ve been here since 1990. I guess just being in Hollywood and being from New York, I’m really fascinated with the glamour of Hollywood. When I was a little kid, I used to see these old movies on television, and then coming to Hollywood, it was amazing. I had all these fantasies about this glamour. It wasn’t really happening in 1990, but I was fantasizing about it—like I was in the Land of Oz. Old Hollywood just permeated. So I was really getting into it, and glamour started coming back to Hollywood. And I found that people just like this vintage vibe. They didn’t like it right away, and as Hollywood began to grow again and starlets would be on the red carpet, glamour starting coming back in. It wasn’t so glamorous 20 years ago. So much has changed since then, and I was here at the right time. My personal preference has been for glamorous Hollywood. You know, a guy from Brooklyn out in the land of Hollywood.

As for rings, my archival knowledge was based on vintage, on antiques—that was my whole training, as a kid. I was always fascinated with it, with things I found on the street. I was a painter, an artist, growing up in New York. Then I went to Paris and learned a lot about antiques. I was really fascinated with those things, so went I moved to California, I brought those aesthetics with me. Over the period of time, I was going back into clients’ archives of jewelry. They’d bring me back diamond rings from their grandma and they didn’t like the mountings, because I guess they’d been changed over the years. And they were kind of not pretty. I started doing designs for people. Since the original mountings were lost, I would recreate things as I understood them—restoring them to their original settings. I didn’t think of myself as a designer at the time, but it just sort of evolved. I started making them on my own, using my aesthetics from the past and contemporary looks from today, and it just really caught on.

EW: When you do have one of those vintage engagement rings, like the ones you and Kay Jewelers offer, they’re larger—so what kind of wedding band would you pair with an engagement ring of that grand size?

NL: It doesn’t really have to be that elaborate. You could do a simple band without diamonds—with just etching in the metal. I’m just finding couples are loving that kind of stuff today. Same-sex couples, too. People are people. There’s no difference for me when I deal with man-woman, man-man … you know, people want beautiful jewelry. There’s no distinction in the type of sexuality. People want to feel special. It’s their special day. For me, it’s kind of cool, because I’ve always done that. Being in Hollywood, I’ve dealt with everyone. I’ve just noticed that men want cool, unique rings if they’re betrothed to each other. They want symbolic things; they want meaningful things. I don’t find a separation in that. When people are that close, and we’re talking about the intimacy in a relationship—it’s all the same. It’s all a human compassionate thing. I’ve dealt with so many same-sex couples forever. What’s cool now is that it’s more free, and the expressions of their love are more free.

EW: When you’re working with two men, is one in particular coming in to shop for a ring to propose to the other man?

NL: Yes, I’ve definitely had that. With men, it’s interesting. Sometimes they buy identical rings for each other with maybe some hidden meaning, inscriptions or jewel inside.

EW: So are they buying separate wedding bands or are these the rings they’ll wear before and after the wedding?

Neil designed a 3-carat marquis cut diamond ring surrounded by smaller diamonds for Ellen DeGeneres to propose to Portia di Rossi (now DeGeneres) with. Courtesy of Neil Lane

NL: Well, the marriage thing is completely new. That adds a whole new dimension. Before, they weren’t wedding rings—they weren’t ceremonial rings—because they weren’t having ceremonies. So now there’s a whole new level to it. I’ve had more experience with women [in this way], like Ellen and Portia.

EW: Ellen proposed to Portia, right?

NL: Yeah, she proposed to her with a ring.

EW: Tell us about their rings.

NL: That was fun when Ellen called me up to do that. She was very serious. She wanted to get something Portia would really love. We went back and forth on designs. And then I had this design that I was working on, which was pink diamonds and the diamond sat sideways. It had all the intricacies. I’ll tell you an interesting thing: When I got to know Portia—it’s a really cute, sweet story. She told me that when she first got to Hollywood and became an actress, she said she’d always wanted to have a Neil Lane wedding ring. That meant a lot to me. It was really special. She didn’t know Ellen. She didn’t know anyone! So it turned out the way she wanted.

Ellen was so sincere about choosing the right thing. We did a lot of things. First, we looked at rings together, for them to select it together. And I think then Ellen wanted to surprise her. So Ellen surprised her with the ring, and then we did bands together. We did matching bands. They were platinum, and they had baguette diamonds around them. I think that’s what they got married with at their ceremony. That’s what’s different today. It’s funny you bring it up. I’m trying to think of what else I’ve done. Oh, there was a guy couple! And he wanted like a real rock—in addition to his wedding band. He wanted a big, fancy-schmancy rock! And then the marriage rings were the same.

Ellen and Portia DeGeneres’ wedding bands feature
baguette-cut diamonds in a platinum band. Courtesy of Neil Lane

EW: Was the band more masculine or feminine?

NL: They were more masculine—simple. But for historical reference, bands have been interchangeable. Men’s and women’s wedding bands—throughout history—could just be a simple gold band. So when I find an archival wedding band, I wouldn’t know if it was a man’s or a woman’s except for the size. So up until the 1920s and ’30s, they weren’t that distinguished. We didn’t have gem-set engagement bands. That’s all changed today. So I haven’t had enough experience, because the whole marriage thing is new. I don’t see a lot of the men wanting big rocks. A lot of same-sex couples are really looking at it just like men and women—they want to get betrothed, they want to have a special proposal. One lesbian couple I worked with, one woman proposed to the other on top of the Eiffel Tower. A guy couple I know, they went hiking and he put the band in the stream.

EW: That’s risky!

NL: [Laughing.] I think he put it in a bag or something. Oh, no, it was by a bush in a stream. And he put the box open in the bush. So I guess the idea was for them to go look at the stream. That was kind of cute!

EW: Very sweet! You’ve got to be original.

NL: Yes! But he had to run ahead and do it. You have to be clever!


The pear-shaped ring from the Essence Collection reminds Neil Lane of his mother and her rings in the ’60s. Courtesy of Neil Lane

EW: Right! So what are the trends you’re seeing for same-sex couples for rings. What diamond shapes are popular right now?

NL: The collection I’m doing right now for Kay really says the designs are popular. People want detail. They want etching. The designs with their intricate patterns, curly-Qs, etchings and a little sparkle everywhere—I’m finding it’s universal. People really like that. They like the detail. That’s definitely one of the trends. But I think simplicity of bands is still there. People like that kind of thing, because of the purity. But for engagement rings, they want more dazzle and more razzle. They want that Hollywood stuff. And even though my stuff is inspired by the past, it’s really fresh and modern. In the Kay collection, it’s handcrafted with my original designs, and those designs are really based on what I go through every day with people—with same-sex couples or not same-sex couples. I really don’t find a difference.

EW: What other same-sex celebrity couples have you worked with?

NL: Hmm. Well, maybe they were celebrities in their own minds. [He laughs.] A lot of them are producers or people famous here in Hollywood, but not known in the general public.

EW: Anyone who you’d like to design for?

NL: I’d love to do Ricky Martin’s rings if he got married.

EW: Traditionally, if you’re proposing, you’re told to save up a certain amount of months’ salary before purchasing a ring. What is 2010’s standard for figuring out what kind of ring you can afford?

NL: I don’t know about that. I know it used to be three months salary. I don’t know if that holds true anymore, and I don’t want to purport something like that. But I think one should stretch a little bit. I don’t think it’s like if you’re just going to get a regular birthday gift. I think a person should stretch—there should be a couple of sighs made—a little uncomfortable! Not to the point, of course, that would put you in debt. I also believe couples, as they grow together financially, they can always go out and upgrade. There’s ways of doing things, like taking the ring and melting it for the metal and reusing it for the new ring. I’m not the guy that supports going into debt for the ring, but I definitely support that you have to stretch and it has to hurt a little bit.

EW: What are some secrets for finding out your partner’s ring size for a surprise ring sizing?

NL: That is so hard! Usually a friend or the partner goes into their jewelry box and takes something quickly to the ring store for measuring. Or the couple goes to try on rings just for fun—and the person proposing remembers the ring size and jots it down. Worse comes to worse, we have to just imagine. Like, OK, what does your partner look like. Are they short, tall … is he a big guy, does he have a big hand? We gauge it. If it’s a band, we can size it afterwards. It’s one of the worst things that if the ring doesn’t fit when you propose.

EW: Right—you want to put it on immediately.

NL: Exactly. If it’s too big, that’s better, because they’ll just put Scotch tape or a Band-Aid on it until they can get in to have it sized. If it doesn’t get on, it’s not so cool.

EW: What’s your ultimate favorite ring in the ones you offer through the Neil Lane/Kay collection?

NL: I love them all, because they’re like my children. But there’s something from the Essence Collection, it’s a pear-shaped ring. It reminds me of my mom. When I was a little kid around the ’60s, she had a pear-shaped ring, so that’s sentimental for me. But I love them all. You know, I’ve been doing “The Bachelor” show every year, and from that, I love the one with the row of diamonds around it. And that’s from the Essence Collection, too. There’s one in the Harmony Collection that looks like a tiered birthday cake that I really like. And another one, which is very architectural, speaks to me as a New Yorker that reminds me of the Radio City Music Hall and really Art Deco buildings. Those are probably my favorites. And all are inspired by famous people I’ve worked with over the years. There’s no specific one—there’s a little bit of them in all of the rings.

EW: Who are some of the famous people you’ve worked with over the years that have inspired you?

NL: Oh, everyone—from Jennifer Hudson to Madonna to Kate Hudson—she wanted a bold ring, Emily Blunt, Nicole Ritchie.

EW: For red-carpet jewelry?

NL: Yes, I do both—red carpet and bridal. Really, I think we’re just known for glamour.

EW: What’s your take on colored diamonds? In or out?

NL: Not at all! But for bridal diamonds, most people prefer white. It represents purity, and it’s really traditional—in a good, positive way. The percentage of colored diamonds is very small. I think it’s growing a little bit. There are opportunities for anything fashionable. Most people prefer white metal and white diamonds, but we do some yellow, some chocolate, but it’s not a significant proportion compared to white. But fashion is always being reinvented.

EW: What else would you like to add?

NL: Well, I’m really excited about my relationship with Kay. I’ve always wanted to bring my designs to America. I’ve always dreamed of that. I’ve always wanted to bring the glamour of Hollywood to everyone, but I didn’t know how to do it. I didn’t know how to expand. And I think Kay is the perfect partner for me, because they are an American jeweler. I wanted to share the positive energy with America. I love that. I want to make everyone stars—at least for the day! We try to make each of the four collections—Timeless, Harmony, Energy, Essence—we tried to give them a personalized feeling. They’re timeless. Even though they’ve got a vintage vibe, they’re contemporary. To be today, you have to go back to yesterday. You have to be present today to take it to the future.

Portia di Rossi, Neil Lane and Ellen DeGeneres at the
Neil Lane/Key Jewelers launch party. Courtesy of Neil Lane

EW: So you have your Hollywood shops, but you don’t have other Neil Lane storefronts in the country, correct?

NL: No, not where we sell bridal. Seasonally, sometimes we’re in Palm Beach and Worth Avenue. And then we sell in the Middle East, in Dubai. But now with the relationship with Kay, I’ll be all over America.

EW: We’re wondering how gay-friendly Kay Jewelers is as a company. They are in middle America. They are in the South. They’re everywhere. How receptive are they going to be to a same-sex couple coming into their stores to look at your collection?

NL: Oh, my God! I think they’d be the most welcoming in the world!

EW: We’re hoping so.

NL: Ellen and Portia hosted our party! On one hand, obviously it’s a same-sex couple, but on the other, I think it transcends all that. I guess in mid-America, values and cultures are different. But times are changing. I think that people have other things to worry about. It’s just people loving each other. I think Kay wants to be bridal America. And they were thrilled with Ellen and Portia. They met all the CEOs. I don’t think it’s a barrier at all. I think it’s just the opposite. I’d love same-sex couples buying my jewels.