“What was your biggest score?”
This is Carole Tanenbaum: witty, winsome, and incredibly fun to talk to.
Her comment, though off the cuff, sheds light on a life which has been shaped for decades by two great loves: her husband Howard, and collecting beautiful objects. The Tanenbaums’ collection is wide-ranging, encompassing photography, toys, hand-crafted quilts, and the field for which Carole specifically is best known: vintage costume jewellery. A leading expert, she is the author of two books on the subject, and has amassed an unrivalled collection of over 30,000 pieces of jewellery, dating from the Victorian to the contemporary.
Carole Tanenbaum’s impeccable eye has led to her collection being showcased around the world, in locations including Saks, Barneys, Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman, Holt Renfrew, Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.
Waddington’s is pleased to present Jewellery from The Carole Tanenbaum Vintage Collection, an exciting auction featuring a selection of costume and silver jewellery, online from March 18-23. To mark the occasion, we spoke with Tanenbaum about her collecting philosophy, her personal style, and what you should be bidding on in the upcoming auction.
You and your husband have been collecting together for decades. It sounds like your collector’s journey is a real love story.
Absolutely. Both Howard and I are passionate collectors. I come from a collecting family. My parents were friendly with Rothko, Milton Avery, David Smith and the whole school of the 50s and 60s, so I grew up with art all over our house. I used to collect bottlecaps, it was like a compulsion. Now, with my jewellery and our other collections, it’s less of a compulsion and more driven by strict aesthetics.
Howard and I really do have one of the great friendships in marriage. He is my prince, and we do everything together. We started collecting by going to great antique shows, and used to plan our travel according to the shows that were on. Though I think he got the collecting bug from me, because he was a lawyer!
You’ve had an incredible career. What part are you most proud of?
When I started, I never expected to have a business. I used to work as a child psychologist, and also as an art consultant. I fell in love with costume jewellery, and after collecting about 3500 pieces, I approached Holt Renfrew to see if I could do a trunk show. After I’d made my pitch to the president of the company at the time, he looked me in the eyes and said “no, I’m not going to give you a trunk show, but I’m going to give you a department.” For 20 some odd years I did that, which was wonderful, exposing people to the beauty of costume jewellery. That’s what precipitated my first book, “Fabulous Fakes.” I wrote it to help new collectors have a reference. My second book on Schreiner was also a real accomplishment, but that was later. Anyway, during that time, Sarah Jessica Parker was filming Sex and the City, and she bought a huge collection of my jewellery. Everyone was thinking about diamonds and pearls, but she loves costume jewellery, and was looking for something that inspired her. She doesn’t take anything from the costume designers, she picks her own jewellery. She still wears those pieces to this day.
I know you think deeply about aesthetics and have been known to say that you care more about design than designer. Do you have a “one that got away,” a piece that you regret passing on?
It’s hard to say, because when you first start off a collection, you always have a limit from a financial perspective as to what you can buy. There were certain major pieces when I started that were totally out of my ability to purchase. But I never really regretted passing on them, because there was always something else around the corner to collect.
That’s a perfect way to think about collecting.
It’s important for people to know that. You can’t always afford what you love, but the things you can afford can be just as great. Loving what you buy is really the most important thing – prestige isn’t everything. My two-dollar pieces are just as important to me as my twenty-thousand-dollar pieces because they do something for me. I put them on and I feel charmed by them.
Is there something you’re looking for right now?
My criterion for collecting has always been design, something that appeals to me aesthetically. I also look for the unusual, for rarity of craftsmanship. It’s a specific way of collecting and probably different than most people. Many are trying to make a comprehensive collection, but I was never really into that. But there’s nothing that I’m specifically looking for…it looks for me!
What’s the most recent piece you’ve bought for yourself?
I just bought a piece from a Waddington’s auction, a brooch by Schreiner that I was lucky to get. I truly think he’s one of the great designers of costume jewellery.
Any favourites in the upcoming auction?
I curate my auctions carefully. I lay it out and I say to myself, okay what are some of the “wow” pieces? Then I work around that with names that I think people would like. It has to have a certain rhythm. Pieces by Jomaz, Haskell and Boucher are bread and butter: the stones are impeccably placed and the designs are refined and classic. Sherman too for the Canadians! And of course, Larin, who is our Brutalist artist from Montreal. One of my favourite pieces in the auction is a silvertone necklace, a real beauty.
Do you have an auction strategy?
I am a watcher. I always put in a starting bid because I don’t want to forget, and then I just watch. I know the maximum that I would want to pay. Ninety percent of the time I stick to that, but the odd time I really need the piece, so I go a little higher. But I always have the end in mind. I always tell people that Waddington’s is one of the best auction places to pay attention to. Canada is still one of the best shopping grounds, especially when contrasted with the high American dollar. You never know what you’re going to find at Waddington’s!
Let’s talk about your personal style. What do you wear on a daily basis?
I go to my sock drawer and I pick a sock. I organize the rest of the outfit from there. I love mixed textures and mixed prints, so I play with sweaters and socks. I’m very casual on a daily basis, but I always have jewellery on, even if I’m only going to the drugstore or for a walk at the cottage. I’m very into grouping jewellery and always have been, so no matter where I go, I always have a lot of jewellery on. Three seems to be my number – three pins, or three necklaces – and I play with grouping pieces that complement each other. It’s fun for me.
How does someone with such an extensive love of layering pack for travel?
I’m a minimalist when we travel. I only want to have one suitcase, so I just do a uniform – maybe three gold pieces that go together or three silver pieces that go together, and that’s what I will use when I’m gone. Truthfully, packing light is a nice excuse to buy more jewellery!
Do you follow trends at all?
Not personally. But I do keep an eye on what is being shown by designers so I can better cater to my clients. As an example, for three or four years, pearls didn’t have a strong audience, but they’ve reappeared on the runway. If I know that Vogue is showing pearls, you bet I’m going to go search for some great pearls, even though I am not buying for myself. I’m the only one who purchases pieces for my business, because people rely on my eye.
Are there pieces that you think everyone should have in their jewellery wardrobe?
Other than a lot of books, I would say no. Each person has a different style which will dictate their collection. Take the stateswoman Madeleine Albright for example, who collected patriotic brooches. She was using jewellery to convey her feelings very creatively. A nice way to start collecting would be to work around a certain theme.
What else would you say to someone who is new to the world of costume jewellery?
Don’t be influenced too much by the name of the designer. Look for a field that compliments your budget, one where you can still find pieces. Copper, silver that isn’t sterling, figurals, Regency and wood are great places to start and are still accessible. If I had started collecting today, I could never have amassed the collection that I did when I started in the 70s. But above all, follow your personal taste and make sure you just love what you get.
About the auction
MARCH 18 – 23, 2023
Sunday, March 19 from 12:00 pm to 4:00 pm
Monday, March 20 from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm
Tuesday, March 21 from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm
An exciting 100+ lot auction featuring a selection of costume and silver jewellery from renowned author and collector, Carole Tanenbaum. Her jewellery has been showcased in Saks, Barneys, Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman, Holt Renfrew, Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, and is sought after by discerning clients around the world. Designers represented in the auction include Sherman, Haskell, Dior and Vrba, alongside other unique vintage pieces.
We invite you to browse the gallery.
Please contact us for more information about the Carole Tanenbaum collection.