J.Kennedy Design

Meet the Artist

When discussing a fine jewelry line as innovative and magnificent as that of J. Kennedy Design, it’s only natural to speculate about the man behind the brand. After all, having received two U.S. patents related to his inspired Cylettes® collection of wearable art, surely John Kennedy had to have been raised amidst wealth, higher education and privilege where he was afforded only the best — private schools, summers on the Vineyard, winters in Palm Beach and, naturally, a hefty trust fund. Then, of course, Kennedy must have parleyed his inheritance with his innate talent for design to come up with the formula for such a successful jewelry business.

“Sorry to disappoint anyone, but that profile is pure fiction. That’s not me at all,” laughs John Kennedy. “And as far as my having an ‘innate’ talent, I take exception to that statement. Believe me, I didn’t come from money or had an inborn talent for design. The truth is, I struggled long and hard my whole life to get ahead, to develop my craft from the ground up, and to make my mark in the jewelry industry.”

Self-made is a word that comes to mind when describing John Kennedy. As in the case of most artists — whatever the media — once you understand his or her beginnings and evolution, a greater appreciation of the work is inevitable.

A native of Connecticut, John, the second of six sons born to Jack Kennedy and Paula Scavetta, had a turbulent childhood. When he was a boy, his father, an incurable alcoholic, left the family to fend for themselves. “My father never helped us. It was all on my mother’s shoulders. There was no money, so we had to go on public assistance,” remembers Kennedy, smiling at the thought of his mother’s strength, patience and kindness. Coming of age in the sixties, Kennedy, recalls loving anything mechanical. “If I got a toy for Christmas, I wasn’t happy until I took it apart and put it back together again. To this day, I’m inspired by both engineering and architecture, because it’s mechanical. You can see it in my design work. That’s why people, especially men, love my jewelry.” As a rebellious teenager and self-described “hippy” without much direction, Kennedy became encouraged to excel by his mother who waitressed during the day and studied for her degree at night. “My mother went on to become the first woman engineer for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the State of Connecticut,” beamed Kennedy who thought if his mother could succeed despite the odds, so could he.

“With six kids in the family, college was never spoken about at home and I had to figure out an alternate plan,” recalls Kennedy. Encouraged by sales of his handcrafted spoon rings to his classmates, together with some solid advice by a few adults in the jewelry business, Kennedy determined that pursuing a career along those lines would be a good path to take. “I bought and read every how-to book on jewelry-making I could find. I bought jewelers tools and set up a makeshift shop in my mom’s basement. I took a class in jewelry casting and it wasn’t long before I was really hooked on the craft.” With a pocketful of small bills from a string of part-time jobs and his high-school diploma in hand, Kennedy rented his first shop in Hartford, CT. “It was a fifth floor walkup at $55 a month rent. What a disaster, I really didn’t know what I was doing and figured taking more casting classes would help. Turns out that I knew more than the instructor, so I began teaching a class myself,” recalls the master jeweler. The next several years were dedicated to learning all he could about the jewelry business, creating contacts, and building his customer base. During that time, Kennedy held a succession of positions and became quite adapt at a variety of skills from casting and repair to setting stones and making bangles, rings, earrings and pendants.

By the late 1970s Kennedy partnered with another up-and-coming jeweler, Richard Austin, and the pair rode quite a wave of success acting primarily as subcontractors for dozens of major jewelry retailers. “Richard could make anything, but needed a blueprint to work from. As for me, I had a good head for business and I was resourceful. Truthfully, in those early days, I wasn’t very creative, but since I needed to eat, I worked non-stop at becoming creative,” chuckles Kennedy. The young duo went on to invest in a building to house a workshop and retail store. At this juncture, Kennedy’s reputation for quality work, creative designs, and accommodating customer service was becoming well established.

With his initial career goals met, the artisan moved to Massachusetts and got married. The union lasted 11 years and blessed the couple with three children — John, Charles and Elyse. On the business front, Kennedy and Austin, also parted ways, allowing for the jeweler to put his life on reset and aim for new heights.

It was1986 when Kennedy began to flex his design muscle by experimenting with various cylindrical metal designs, the predecessor of today’s Cylettes®. “I wanted to create something totally unique,” says the jeweler, who methodically explored his design options with dozens of metals, gemstones, colors, and mountings. The following year, with these prototypes in hand, Kennedy emerged onto the global jewelry scene at InterGold Competition and was acclaimed as an up-and-coming design talent by collectors, critics, and enthusiasts. Eight years later, an unprecedented thing occurred: The jeweler was awarded two U.S. Patents for the innovative concepts he developed for Cylettes®. The honor and achievement was incredible, especially since there were only five jewelry patents in application issued during the entire 20th century. In essence, Kennedy discovered that the stone’s cylindrical cut allowed for the transmission of natural light, unlike faceted stone cuts, which only allow for reflection. With the creation of Cylettes®, Kennedy’s place as an industry leader was now set in stone in the global annals of jewelry design.

Aside from his many awards and accolades for his innovative jewelry design, Kennedy was also commissioned to do several other types of creative projects. Among them, a scale replica of the James Farm Road Bridge, an art deco-inspired structure built in the 1940, which spans the Merritt Parkway in Shelton, CT. “Loving architecture as I do and understanding the historic value of the bridge, I jumped at the chance to design the model,” says Kennedy.

In each business, it’s almost inevitable that a little rain must fall. And after two decades working day and night to succeed, J. Kennedy Design began to feel the proverbial financial pinch of maintaining a high level of prosperity. “Actually, it wasn’t a pinch, but more like a punch,” he chuckles pointing to his divorce, a bad economy, inflation, and cash-flow issues as the reasons for his sweet career turning a tad sour. “The biggest tug-of-war artists deal with is between doing their work and making a living. Back then, I dug myself into quite a money-pit. At one point I had amassed about $80 thousand dollars in credit card debt, just to keep my company afloat,” he confides. When things couldn’t get any bleaker, providence intervened. “I had a booth at the Las Vegas International Jewelry Show and a couple of execs from a duty-free company stopped by the booth and really liked my work. The next, thing I knew I was aboard a cruise ship bound for the Baltic Sea selling my jewelry. Up until then, I was selling to retail stores and galleries, but now I had the opportunity to actually market my Cylettes® jewelry to the end-user and it sold like crazy!” It wasn’t long before Kennedy was back on track, traveling the world on a fleet of luxury liners — Seaborne, Cunard, Crystal, Regent, and Celebrity, with his permanent collection of wearable art featured on 26 ships.

“After growing up in poverty, here I was literally sailing the seven seas, wearing a tuxedo, visiting places most people only dreamt about, and dining with dignitaries. I’m so grateful for the experience and the education,” says Kennedy. Regarded by the duty-free companies for the cruise lines as being a premiere vendor, the master jeweler was also the most respected. A testimony to that fact was when Kennedy became an official consultant for them. “I was tasked with advising the new onboard vendors with procedures on everything from presentations on board to clearing customs. I even wrote a manual for them.”

However, by 2014, after 17 years circling the globe six times and visiting over 80 countries, Kennedy decided to take a sabbatical, pull up anchor and go ashore. “It was a bittersweet decision to shelf that part of my life. I really loved the adventure of meeting new people, introducing my collection throughout the world, learning about different cultures, and expecting the unexpected. International travel really refined who I am and afforded me opportunities I would not have had otherwise. I can’t deny that the travel was a huge life-changer for me. Still, it was a distraction, which took me away from my work, my art. I was never in jewelry for the money. I chose the field because I had a true passion for the art. It chose me, actually.”

Between building such an impressive business and introducing the industry to an innovation in jewelry design, what’s left for John Kennedy to do?“ Now is my time to give back. If it weren’t for some key people who encouraged and helped me along the way, I’m unsure where I would be today,” Kennedy says humbly. Thankfully, the master jeweler is right where he needs to be. Off hours, you might find him covering third base at a softball game, playing a round of golf, training for a marathon, riding his Harley, or skydiving. “While I enjoy my down-time, I’m most at home working on my art,” remarks Kennedy. On any given day, you will find the master jeweler creating new designs, mentoring young artists, or teaching a class or a workshop at Metalwerx’s School of Jewelry. “I want to help inspire new talent, to keep the art of fine jewelry design alive for many generations to come. In this age of mass production, quality work is harder to find than it is to afford. I want to play a role in changing all that.”


 

 

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