Q&A with Vintage Costume Jewelry Maven Carole Tanenbaum

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vintage art deco brooch

There is no doubt that our First Lady has brought style back to the White House. On inauguration day, all eyes were watching for what Michelle Obama would be wearing, oh and the inauguration of the President too of course. One woman was behind the dazzling brooch that set off the ensemble Isabel Toledo had created. That woman was none other than the dame of bijoux – Carole Tanenbaum.

Carole Tanenbaum has been in the vintage costume jewelry business for 25 years. Her online store, Carole Tanenbaum Vintage Collection, has been a mecca for high end, collectible vintage costume jewelry. She has accessorized everyone from Natalie Portman to Sarah Jessica Parker to First Lady Michelle Obama. Carole was gracious enough to answer a few burning questions I had.

People who have a passion for fashion always explain their infatuation by stating that fashion is art – another form of expression. Carole Tanenbaum proves this statement true. There is no doubt that her former life in art collecting and dealing was training for the small pieces of art she has so lovingly and passionately collected.


Meet Carole Tanenbaum…

DC: How did you know you wanted your life’s work to be in costume jewelry?

CT: Sometimes experiences in life dictate where you go and what you do. I have always been a collector – of art, vintage quilts, etc. My primary business was fine art consulting. It was when, on a trip to London, about 28 yrs ago, that I stumbled on a small but very select collection of Vintage Costume Jewelry and fell in love. As a collector, I made it my mission to purchase as many pieces as I loved, until a few yrs later, I amassed several thousand jewels. I had no intention of going into this business ,as I was very happy buying and selling art. But I approached Holt Renfrew, Canada to see if they were interested in doing a trunk show (1994). They were smitten, gave me my own dept (!) And that was the beginning of CTVC.

DC: You provide jewelry for so many celebrities, even First Lady Michelle Obama. Are the famous more daring when it comes to jewelry?

CT: Most stars are not daring in their tastes. They gravitate towards pieces that are “safe”. There are a few exceptions however. Sarah Jessica Parker is extremely creative, not only with her choices, but with the unconventional way she wears her pieces, her placements. Mrs Obama also makes unusual choices, and mixes vintage with contemporary.

DC: Michelle Obama has become quite the fashion icon. How did you feel being one of the people responsible for dressing First Lady Michelle Obama?

CT: Michelle has been wearing CTVC well before the election. But I was surprised and extremely proud that she chose one of our early, historical brooches for the inauguration, when she could certainly have worn Fred Leighton, Harry Winston, or anyone. It was a unique choice, and one fitting with the times.

DC: You have provided many pieces of jewelry to film and television productions, most recently Grey Gardens with Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore. What is your process when it comes to suggesting pieces for the screen?

CT: When we are selecting jewelry for film, we work with the stylist (s) in charge. They usually select in segments, as the film progresses. Each visit, they chose for a particular outfit(s) . They either give us very clear descriptions -color, scale, period etc, or they bring in the outfits. They generally over select, bring the pieces to the set and make a selection from there, within a day or two.

DC: When you are acquiring pieces for your collection, what do you gravitate to the most?

CT: When purchasing for my collection, I gravitate toward jewelry that shows imagination, creativity, and that is well made. I am interested in jewelry that is bold, and that makes a statement. High color; large scale, often small production.

DC: Are designer labels important when it comes to collecting costume jewelry?

CT: Designer labels do not affect my choices. My eye gravitates to the unusual. Many times an unsigned piece is more spectacular than a “ho hum” design by one of vintage’s icons.

DC: Who are some of your favorite costume jewelry designers?

CT: Some of my favorite Vintage designers are Schreiner, Early colored Haskell, Sandor, Coppolo e Toppo, Schibensky, Vargas,Bakelite, Dior, and early french pieces.

DC: You wrote a fabulous book titled Fabulous Fakes. Any plans for a follow up book?

CT: I was thinking of writing a book on Schreiner, my absolute favorite. We’ve done the photography,of about 450 masterpieces, but there is little information about the manufacturer. So, the book would lack the educational tool needed to make it more than a table top book. Otherwise nothing planned in the near future, but you never know!

DC: Are there any costume jewelry designers today that you feel will be future collectibles?

CT: There are so many great designers out there today. I have started to collect Larry Vrba, Robert Sorrell, a bit of David Mandel, Iradj Moini, Alan Anderson (ck my blog on him on www.caroletanenbaum.com, Marni, Missoni, Cavali. All these people have unique ideas, a small production and excellent workmanship – 3 things collectors looks for.
I also like many pieces by Alexis Bitar, Monies, Hendler.

DC: Any tips for aspiring vintage costume jewelry collectors?

CT: I would urge new collectors to educate their eye. There are dozens of bks today on Vintage Costume Jewelry. See what interests you. Buy pieces that are in fine, original condition, well made and that speak to your personal aesthetics. Whether it be a designer, a period, a type of jewelry that draws you in, make sure it’s authentic. As vintage becomes more and more popular, there are more fakes on the market, so trust whom you are buying from.

DC: If you had to exit the building to save your life and could only grab one item from your collection, what would it be?

CT: I can never answer that question, as we have over 20,000 pieces, all carefully selected by me . So, if I had to take one treasure with me I would probably take my favorite jewel, my husband!

vintage miriam haskell flower necklace

vintage bakelite cameo


art deco machine age earrings
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1 EB Finds { 06.10.09 at 6:52 am }

Thanks for the great interview. Carole is a huge inspiration, and her sense of style is evident when you look at her collection. I love that she buys what she loves, no matter the signature.

2 Jeanne Suica { 06.10.09 at 9:24 am }

Thanks for such an interesting write-up. Hmmm…maybe I need to start selling some jewerly, what an inspiration!

3 Patti { 06.10.09 at 9:24 am }

great interview!

4 Barbara Boyce { 06.10.09 at 10:54 am }

I had the pleasure to have Carole visit my store a few years ago in Caledonia and I have to say she is a gem! Totally into her field, completely down to earth and pleasant, and 110% knowledgeable with a eye above the norm. She appreciates every one’s efforts and does wonders to boost the fabulous world of vintage costume jewelry. So pleased to see such a great article about a terrific lady.

5 Jade { 06.12.09 at 9:44 am }

Wow! Very enlightening interview! It’s so cool to know that there are people out there that love what they do, and have a passion for jewels. I want to be bff’s with ms. tanenbaum!!

6 Sandra { 06.12.09 at 10:19 am }

Thanks for reading Jade! Isn’t it encouraging? Her passion is relentless. I’ve never seen such beautiful objects. I also enjoyed interviewing Past Era. You should check it out. I love your feature on Alexis Bittar. I would love to interview him. Maybe he’ll agree?

7 Sandra { 06.12.09 at 10:24 am }

Barbara – what a great honor to have her in your store. I know I’m a little star struck, but I can’t get over her amazing collection.
Thanks to everyone for reading. I’m so glad you enjoyed the interview.

8 Cafe Fashionista { 06.13.09 at 7:51 am }

Love this interview; and love these pieces. What an amazing talent!

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