King of the Ice Age

updated 10/18/2004 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/18/2004 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Neil Lane would like to make one thing clear: When you see stars on the red carpet all asparkle in fabulous gems, ifs not like they just phoned him up and ordered them like a pizza. (How many carats ya want, lady?) It's a much more involved transaction. Take Jennifer Garner, bedecked in diamonds by Lane to set off her white Oscar de la Renta dress for last month's Emmys. "We were at her house that Sunday with a gazillion dollars worth of jewelry," Lane coolly estimates, "all dependent on the dress. If she went with red, we were going with rubies." Now multiply that scenario by the 24 stars Lane outfitted for the ceremony, including Drea de Matteo, Ellen DeGeneres, Edie Falco and James Spader, who wore diamond cuff links.

"Prior to the Emmys," gasps Lane, "the phone rings nonstop."

Not that he's complaining. He recalls when the only rings at his store were old gold pieces that no one seemed to want. "I came with a little bag of vintage jewelry," says Lane, 53, who left his native New York to open a Beverly Hills shop in 1982. "People didn't get it. They thought it was grandma's jewelry."

Lane did count Barbra Streisand and Goldie Hawn among his few early customers. And then, in the '90s, retro glamor began making a comeback. Lane was soon decking out stars in storied gems dating from the turn of the century through the 1940s. Today his devotees span the generations in Hollywood. "My mom turned me on to vintage," says Hawn's daughter Kate Hudson, who went to Lane for her 5-carat asscher-cut diamond engagement ring. "Nobody knows its history like he does."

In recent years Lane has begun putting his own spin on the past, designing original pieces inspired by his favorite eras, including the starburst pendant worn by Jennifer Lopez on the Will & Grace premiere last month.

The son of a businessman and a homemaker mother, Lane aspired to be a painter and left Brooklyn at 17 to study art in Paris. Today his home in LA is filled with his paintings. "I didn't know I was going to end up being artful in making jewels," he says. "I started going to Faubourg Saint Honoré, saw the jewelry shops and really stared looking. My eye was riveted. I didn't have much money, but I learned a lot."

Eventually he knew how to recognize valuable pieces and how to sell them, ultimately to private collectors. He particularly loved the graceful, swooping lines of Art Nouveau and the clean geometry of early 20th-century design. "When I found a piece done in the 1900s, I would get real excited."

Today he shares that excitement with a clientele that reads like the SAG roster: In addition to Hudson, Madonna and Reese Witherspoon found their engagement rings at his counter. "Neil is as full of light and sparkle as his diamonds," says Madonna, who pushed Lane to try his hand at hip-hop bling for a Gap ad she appeared in with Missy Elliot. Jennifer Lopez borrowed $7 million of Lane jewels for her June wedding to Marc Anthony. And Hollywood men have beaten a path to Lane's modest Beverly Boulevard shop, too. Kevin Costner gave his new bride a 5-carat diamond ring and gold bracelet on their wedding day last month. Warren Beatty is a repeat buyer; so is Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who raves, "Neil is always there for me when I need something for a special occasion."

Being jeweler to the stars means that Lane, who lines his shop walls with celebrities' pictures, is entrusted with many secrets. Tabloids routinely call him to ask which A-listers may soon pop the question. But he never sells and tells. "If you had said to me years ago, 'One day you are going to end up in Hollywood designing jewels for the most significant events in people's lives,' " he marvels, "I would have never believed it."
Allison Adato. Merle Ginsberg in Beverly Hills

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