Carole Tanenbaum could be described as the Coco Chanel of the modern jewellery world. Born and raised in New York and now living and working in Toronto, she has made costume jewellery modern, desirable, and classic, just as the Mademoiselle herself did. Initially, her career lay in the world of corporate art, but twenty years ago she jumped into the universe of fashion and vintage jewellery. Her collection consists of over 30,000 pieces from great designers such as Dior, Lanvin, and Chanel. Her keen eye for detail and craftsmanship has made hers a collection that is internationally famous, evident in the fact that Tanenbaum has given lectures on costume jewelry at the Royal Ontario Museum, the International Society of Appraisers, and in her own book Fabulous Fakes: A Passion for Vintage Costume Jewellery. Michelle Obama, Sarah Jessica Parker and Beyoncé are among her many loyal clients. Selections from her collection are available for sale worldwide at high-end boutiques.
When did you realize that you wanted to move from a career in corporate art into costume jewellery?
My transition from the corporate art world to a career in Vintage Costume Jewelry came quite by accident, I was first a collector for about three years. I amassed a huge collection during that time. I had been in the art world for 20+ years and decided to share my vintage passion with others. I approached Holt Renfrew, Toronto, and they established Carole Tanenbaum Vintage Collection.
What was the transition like?
It was an easy transition, as I was passionate about vintage and I was somewhat burned out with the corporate end of collecting. The idea was fresh and I was one of the public start-ups to have my collection in a large dept store, setting the bar in fashion with a unique way of accessorizing.
Have the lines between art and jewellery blurred?
Not at all. In fact, I use the same aesthetic criteria when selecting jewels as I do when selecting art. Look for originality, creativity, and craftsmanship.
Why costume jewellery?
In costume, one is not limited in size, shape, or colour. So the ability to create an original design is greater than it is with fine jewelry. There is no greater wow factor in accessorizing than to wear creative vintage.
What was the first piece of costume jewellery you ever loved/owned?
I bought a Coppola e Toppo beaded necklace which I considered wearable art. This started my love for this 60s design team who created many jewels for Pucci.
What is it that you love most about collecting?
I love the hunt! When I come upon a treasure, I feel like I struck gold. I also love filling in my personal collection with pieces that are needed.
Have you ever collected something else from costume jewellery?
I have about a dozen personal collections - art, quilts, vintage toys, vintage photographs… I am a born collector, starting at age 5 when I was collecting match covers.
Given that you have so many pieces this may be hard, but do you have a favourite piece from the collection?
I have some favourite areas of collecting like Bakelite, Scottish, Figurals, as well as favourite designers such as Schreiner, Coppola e Toppo, and Hobe.
Brooches, bracelets, earrings, necklaces…do you have a favourite?
No, I wear them all in quantity, grouping 3 or 4 bracelets with several necklaces and closely placed brooches at any given time. And I wear these to the grocery store or to an event. I feel naked without them.
Are you in the lookout for something in particular?
I am always on the lookout for unusual and rare pieces. Since public Museums and fashionista alike are collecting voraciously, the rare and small production jewels are harder to find.
Do you have a favourite material (metal, gemstone, etc.)?
I love Bakelite, and coloured crystals. And, believe it or not, I love great wood pieces.
Why did you decide to move from New York to Toronto?
I fell in love with a Torontonian and the rest is history. I am fortunate to return to NY several times a year, as I love being there.
How would you describe the jewellery/fashion world in Toronto?
I was in on the jewellery/fashion world early on. I watched the growth of Vintage over the last 20 years, and how it has influenced the couture designer who reference vintage designs in their jewellery designs. Toronto has always been current in fashion and took readily to Vintage accessories. Our press has been incredibly supportive, which helps communicate the importance of jewellery in fashion.
Since you travel a lot, do you have a favourite place to pick up pieces?
I always love London to see selections that rarely travel “across the pond”. I also love road trips to small cities to see what I can scoop.
What should a woman look for in a good piece of costume jewellery?
A must when looking for vintage is fine condition. We each have our own sense of aesthetics, so it is hard to tell people what to look for. However, make sure the piece(s) is in original condition and is original. As the vintage industry grows, so does the appearance of fakes. Ask questions and learn about what you are buying. Information is key to the growth of collecting.
Similarly, what do you look for in pieces to add to your collection?
As I have over 10,000 pieces in my private collection, I look for pieces that I need to complete sets and series. I am always looking for new areas to collect.
Do you have a favourite era of jewellery design?
I love the Glitz of the 50s, as well the designs of the Deco Era.
What part do you think costume jewellery plays in fashion today?
I think everyone is aware of how costume jewellery defines the outfit. People who are interested in fashion turn to vintage for the unique fashion statement as a "wow” factor in accessorizing.
Do you have a favourite designer?
I love Henry Schreiner and Hobe.
What inspires you?
I am always attracted to originality in design, colour combinations, and excellent workmanship.
Any advice for other collectors?
Read about the different designers, go to shows, expose yourself to Vintage. Then, choose dealers who are knowledgeable and will steer you in the right direction.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
Same place, same passion.