Restringing a Famous Last Name
by Rachel Felder
YOU might expect the jewelry designer Jenny Lauren to have a head start in the business: She’s the niece of Ralph and the daughter of his brother Jerry, the executive vice president for men’s design at the fashion behemoth. But her big retail break came from an unlikely source: Urban Zen, the small chain that Ralph Lauren’s contemporary (and some might say competitor), Donna Karan, helped found.
Not that Ms. Lauren deliberately approached the Karan store with a sales pitch, or even a plan beyond a quick afternoon browse. Last September, she stopped by Urban Zen’s boutique in Sag Harbor, N.Y., wearing a neckful of the flapper-meets-hippie extra-long beaded necklaces she makes by hand. The store manager, unaware of her design lineage, admired them and offered her a trunk show on the spot. When it was held at the shop a few weeks later, Uncle Ralph stopped by and decided he needed the jewelry for his stores, too.
“Ralph just said to me, ‘This is not because Jenny’s my niece,’ ” Jerry Lauren said proudly. “ ‘You know, this stuff is terrific.’ ”
The jewelry does suggest a family influence. It’s a mix of beads and bits in bone, brass, coconut wood, silver and glass that feels a little American Indian, and a lot “Out of Africa,” with a touch of prepster-on-vacation earthiness. “I don’t think it’s an accident,” Ms. Lauren said. “There’s no way that growing up in my family and being around the looks my whole life didn’t seep in.”
But a childhood spent in that picture-perfect family, a tight-knit clan that could be a group of extras from a Polo ad, wasn’t easy for Ms. Lauren, who battled an eating disorder and related health problems during her teens and 20s. (She documented those experiences in a 2004 book, “Homesick: A Memoir of Family, Food and Finding Hope.”)
These days, at age 39, she seems comfortable in her own skin and with her own look, which is more eclectic artist than all-American, accessorized by the chipped nails and pallor of a type-A creative sort who works mostly at night. In an interview she seemed unpretentious and earthy, without any of the slickness you might expect from someone raised in Manhattan with boldface names in the background.
Still, she’s close to her family, including her high-profile first cousins David, the executive vice president for global advertising, marketing and communications at Ralph Lauren; and Dylan, of Candy Bar fame. (Ralph Lauren’s other son, Andrew, is a film producer.) She has two older brothers: Brad, who is in the restaurant business, and Greg Lauren, an artist, former actor and founder of a clothing line under his name, sold at Barneys New York, that suggests his uncle’s garments deconstructed and turned into costumes for the fight scenes in “The Hunger Games.”
Ms. Lauren’s jewelry, which has a hand-touched, intentionally raw feel, shares some of the rough-and-tumble look of her brother’s collection. It includes chunky unisex chokers and bracelets that men have been pairing with button-down oxfords and suits, vintage-y metal chains with a cluster of hammered medallions and simpler dangling earrings with textured beads from Kenya and Ghana.
The standouts are those extremely long women’s necklaces — essentially, extra exaggerated opera length — which each have an ever-so-slightly jarring combination of colors and materials, like delicate little deep-red Czech glass beads and pale-gray granite stones from Mali, acquired mostly during the last two decades, when the designer hopscotched from Santa Fe, N.M., and Tucson to Paris.
Although she has been beading since she was a teenager, most of her adult life has been focused on other art-related endeavors, like painting, working in galleries and studying art therapy. But last year, Ms. Lauren found herself returning to jewelry, mostly as an escape from prolonged grieving over losing her mother, Susan, to lung cancer in October 2008. “I feel like a cat with nine lives,” she said. “I feel very grateful that I’ve had so many different careers and interests and that they’ve culminated into something that’s so fulfilling.”
By last May, she was spending most of her time at a rented house in Wainscott, N.Y., obsessively beading, mostly late at night. Friends who saw the work liked it, and many bought pieces as gifts, but it wasn’t until her encounter at Urban Zen that Ms. Lauren started to think her jewelry could become a business.
Jenny Lauren Jewelry, (or JLJ, as the tiny brass hangtag on most of the pieces reads) isn’t cheap, starting at $350 for earrings and some of her simpler metal necklaces, to $5,000 for one of the long necklaces, which have names like Wonder Woman, Red Desert and Lioness. But Ms. Lauren said she considered her work a hybrid of art and fashion, with each item made by hand (often with rare beads, although she doesn’t use precious stones) in her sunny Upper East Side studio.
As for that famous last name, Ms. Lauren thinks that making jewelry — the only creative medium she has explored that has a connection to fashion — has liberated her from its baggage. “For the first time in my life, I don’t feel like it’s been an albatross,” she said.
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