Part II: Catching Up With Scott Kay

This is a continuation of yesterday’s post about a market visit to Scott Kay headquarters in Teaneck, N.J.

Messina ushered me into a conference room filled with displays of merchandise to wait for Kay. I walked the perimeter examining the jewelry—weighty carved silver numbers, some set with gemstones, as well as a few bridal styles—and marveled at the detailing, a signature in the designer’s work. The face of a pit bull–motif ring in silver captured every crease and wrinkle of the animal’s face with a skill level and passion for craftsmanship that you rarely see in the market anymore. This was the kind of work that I associated with Kay: masterful carving and an unparalleled dedication to detail because that is the only way to finish a piece of jewelry, a mantra that has earned the onetime King of Platinum the new nickname, the King of Details, in recent years.

New detailed piece from Scott Kay

An example of the type of detailed work that Scott Kay produces

“The artists of the past took their time,” Kay told JCK in 2011 upon the release of his Faith collection. “That’s what I want my jewelry to reflect.”

Scott Kay giving me a tour of his workshop

Scott Kay

Scott Kay giving me a tour of his workshop

Kay joined me later and began filling me in on what he’s been up to besides turning out historically inspired and detail-rich jewelry collections with positive messages and imagery (remember his Samurai collection from 2013 and Protecting the Cross from 2011?). As if meeting with him in his office wasn’t a privilege enough, Kay surprised me by opening up about his roots, a story he also confided to Capital Style last summer. Kay is the son of an alcoholic mother and absent father and lacked any drive until after high school, when Kay spied a lug nut on the street on his way home from a catering job. Intrigued by the shape, he took it home and filed it into a pinky ring. Soon after, he experienced the epiphany that making jewelry was what he wanted to do with his life.

Kay applied to the Fashion Institute of Technology and was rejected for his less-than-illustrious school records, but instead of accepting that answer, he marched into FIT offices and got an audience with former school official Mel Strump, whom he persuaded to give him a chance. Strump invited him to attend summer school for introductory jewelry making and gemology classes, and—no surprise—he excelled and earned admission into the school’s jewelry-making program. Another coup: He helped his mother sober up. Tragically, she died young, and when she did, Kay buried her with a 14k gold serpent ring that he made to earn entry into FIT. The ring served as a mark of his budding talent and as a symbol of his increasing self-esteem at the time. “It was the most important thing in the world to me, but I wanted her to have it,” Kay recollects.

At this point, I felt small and humbled by what I had just heard. The legendary Scott Kay should be a statistic—not an international success—based on his upbringing, but instead he parlayed that negativity into fuel for change, progress, growth, and self-improvement that few have the strength to muster even under the best conditions. And for Kay to open up to his industry and share his story, inspiring others—particularly students who may be struggling—speaks further to the powerhouse that is Scott Kay. He is the consummate artist, craftsman, businessman, philanthropist, gentleman, and brand builder who can now add motivational figure to his list of accomplishments.

Lug nut similar to the one a young Scott Kay filed into a ring that helped earn him entry into the Fashion Institute of Technology

Lug nuts similar to the one a young Scott Kay filed into a ring that helped him earn entry into the Fashion Institute of Technology

Sharing a laugh with Scott Kay at his offices in New Jersey

Scott Kay

Sharing a laugh with Scott Kay at his office in New Jersey

An education in thrumming from Scott Kay

Video: An education in thrumming from Scott Kay

Kay’s story also explains a lot about his intentions, character, and his early affinity for the bridal category. “An engagement ring is supposed to be a prized possession,” he said. “I design bridal jewelry because I love the category.” Kay has been married to his wife for 28 years (just two years shy of the 30 years he has run his eponymous firm), and they have three adult children—one of whom is involved in the business. “I practice being a good husband and dad,” he added. To that end, he revealed that he has a book in progress with a tentative title of The Lost Art of Proposing: Marriage, Faith, and Family. “It infuriates me that there is a 50 percent divorce rate in this country,” he said. “An engagement is more than a ring—it’s proposing a life together.” (Even Kay’s tagline for bridal is “Never compromise on proposing a life together.”) “I live passionately in this category, and that passion follows me everywhere,” he explained. (JCK will share details of the book’s publication when they are available.)

Ad for Scott Kay jewelry

An ad for Scott Kay

Truer words have never been spoken. Kay’s jewelry collections are equal parts beautiful objects and storytelling vehicles for positive messages, lost cultures, and forgotten value systems. His Heavens Gates bridal jewelry features angel wings subtly designed into profiles, while other styles reveal hands in prayer position. Also consider his Samurai and Guardian collections, which pay homage to ancient Japanese military and protectors in general through pieces mirroring the look of the Samurai armor and by capturing the secure wrist-to-wrist embrace of the guardian grip in metal. (Kay even has some antique Samurai armor on display in his by invitation-only store SK66, which doubles as a museum and space to host private fund-raisers for the myriad charities with which Kay is involved.)

Scott Kay Heaven's Gate collection

Scott Kay Heaven’s Gates collection

Antique Samurai armor on display in SK66 next to a ring from the Samurai collection

Antique Samurai armor on display next to a ring from the Samurai collection in Scott Kay’s by- appointment-only boutique SK66

Bracelet from the Guardian collection by Scott Kay

Bracelet from the Guardian collection by Scott Kay

Then there is the unifying element of the Spartan hatchet symbol that is evident across all of his fashion collections. “I like to bring the past forward,” he said. “The Spartan sword is in my DNA.” Much like Kay, Spartans bravely confronted trouble when it presented itself, and the elegant lines of their hatchets served as artistic reminders, then and now, of their strength and commitment to serve. And now, Kay aims to take his commitment to the motif to an even higher level through apparel and other accessories.

Spartan Sword symbolism from Scott Kay

Spartan Sword symbolism from Scott Kay

“I’m expanding my DNA in a way that is totally consistent with who I am without being commercial,” he said. To wit, he is combining his love of fashion and appreciation for culture with the elegant calligraphy-like styling of the Spartan sword and applying it to a range of garments, shoes, boots, athletic gear, leather goods, and more, for men and women.

“It moves with the body,” Kay said about the aesthetic. “It looks like it’s growing like vines.”

Kay showed me sketches of this new category, which revealed the wide range of clever applications that can be employed. A microscopic detail of the Spartan sword motif was evident on the seams of men’s oxford shoes, while bigger symbols played out on the elongated cuffs of jeans. Plus, the pattern peaked out from inside shirt collars, was poised permanently on zippers, and even perched playfully on the backside of the undies on a rendered male model.

Scott Kay's proposed fashion line of clothes, shoes, and more, for men and women

Scott Kay’s proposed fashion line of clothes, shoes, and more, for men and women

Scott Kay's proposed fashion line of clothes, shoes, and more, for men and women

Another piece of Scott Kay’s proposed fashion line of clothes, shoes, and more, for men and women

Scott Kay's proposed fashion line of clothes, shoes, and more, for men and women

More of Scott Kay’s proposed fashion line of clothes, shoes, and more, for men and women

Like some of the great consumer fashion brands coveted around the world, Kay is exploring the possibilities that his company, category, brand, and personal and professional character can achieve. Everything Kay does speaks to the themes of bravery, chivalry, honor, artistry, and uplifting messages, and what we in jewelry are witnessing now is the start of the next impressive chapter of Scott Kay.

The Style 360 blog is your editorial source for the newest jewelry, trends, market analysis, trade show highlights, designer profiles, and more.