Carole Tanenbaum talks about vintage costume jewelry, discussing the major designers (such as Coco Chanel, Schiaparelli, Trifari, and Schreiner), popular fashion trends, and the origins of costume jewelry. She can be contacted at her website, caroletanenbaum.com.
My husband and I have many collections. We were in London at one point in the ’80s, and I saw a fabulous collection of vintage costume jewelry. Each item was like a little object of art. I bought about two dozen pieces, including some wonderful early Chanels that are virtually impossible to find today, and several pieces by Dior and Hobe. That really got me started. Because I had begun at the high-end, but didn’t know it, I developed an eye for pieces that had great integrity.
As a collector, your attention is immediately focused on your newest collection. I started researching and buying books and I accumulated an extensive collection.
I kept on collecting, not thinking about doing it as a business. But because I was a voracious collector, there came a point 15 years ago where I had about 3,500 pieces. I wasn’t able to wear all of them, so I approached Holt Renfrew, a major department store in Toronto, to do a trunk on vintage. They loved the collection and they loved the concept of a single curator, so they took on my collection as a department, which still runs today as the Carole Tanenbaum Vintage Collection.
My site is actually very recent. Because of all the press that we are fortunate to get, I developed this virtual store for people who were interested in the Carole Tanenbaum Vintage Collection but couldn’t go to any of my venues to see it. That only started about two years ago.
Collectors Weekly: Does your family collect?
Tanenbaum: Yes. My son is a great collector. He started a collection of watches about five years ago. Because he’s the creative vent in my family, he bought watch parts because it intrigued him, and he developed the collection of cufflinks on my site.
My daughter-in-laws love collecting. They’re over every Friday night, and they’ll go upstairs and play with the inventory. They’ve developed collections in their own right.
Collectors Weekly: Have you noticed any major trends in vintage costume jewelry?
Tanenbaum: We always notice trends because we work with stylists all the time. Each season brings a new request. For example, this season they’re showing very large necklaces and large, multiple chains. Very large bracelets are still in, but now they’re wearing cuffs that are either similar or complementary of each other on both wrists, which is a very new development.
As far as brooches go, Mrs. Obama has really put them back on the map. Three or four years ago, there was a real resurgence of brooches. I think I sold 700 in September of that year. But then, because there was such a glut in the market, brooches were out, and this is the first year that I really sense that they will be coming back with a vengeance.
Brooches are really the traditional mainstay in jewelry. You put a brooch on as an accessory and it can’t be ignored. I think it’s the most conventional piece of jewelry, so people always feel safe with a nice brooch on. I think it’s always been that way, since the Victorian era. Currently you see great, large brooches on the runways. Mrs. Obama is a taste setter—people are always looking to her, not only for the fact that she wears brooches, but the way in which she wears them. It’s almost haphazard, unplanned, and that gives people encouragement to be creative with their placement of the brooch and their purchase of the brooch. I think she is making it happen, to be quite honest.
We have 15,000 pieces in our inventory now. Don’t forget that I collected for about 26 years. We do a lot of our pulling through our site now, and we have quite a large population in California who actually buy from the site. We were recently in Grey Gardens with Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore, and we did the movie Chicago.
I love that certain people like Sarah Jessica Parker and Mrs. Obama choose vintage. They could choose Fred Leighton, they could choose anybody they wanted, but their eye goes to vintage. I find that very rewarding because they actually understand the beauty in the historic piece as well as that it can be worn in a contemporary manner. I think that that takes a certain level of sophistication.
Collectors Weekly: Do you still collect?
Tanenbaum: I’m always collecting. I love vintage jewelry. I think that it has the greatest “Wow” factor in accessorizing. A vintage piece or a piece that doesn’t have real gemstones has a greater possibility of being bolder and larger and more colorful than a gemstone piece. If you love accessorizing, like me, it’s the greatest way of showing a creative way of dressing.
I only collect by appearance, not by designer. Let’s say you’ve collected Picasso for years—you’d know even without looking at the signature which is a Picasso painting. So if I’m collecting today, I don’t pay attention to signature, but I do know who made what. That doesn’t mean that I’ll always pick up a Dior piece or I’ll always pick up a Henry Schreiner piece, even though they are among my favorites. If I don’t think the design works, I won’t buy it. So for me, it’s really the aesthetic that’s important. Even if it’s a Weiss or a lesser manufacturing house, if the piece is beautiful, I’ll buy it. I’ll buy it for its aesthetic value, not for the fact that it was not done in production or that it’s a rare piece.
Collectors Weekly: How important is condition?
Tanenbaum: In costume jewelry, it’s very important. I never buy a piece that isn’t in excellent condition. If you’re buying it as a fashionista, you certainly don’t want to see missing stones or the finish of a piece gone or the pin back broken—for practical purposes, you want it to appear to be complete. From a collector’s point of view, sometimes they’ll buy a piece that has a couple of missing stones that are not difficult to find. But I would say that if you look at a piece and the damage of the piece appears to be more important than the piece itself, then don’t buy it. If it overrides the aesthetics of a piece because it’s too distracting, don’t buy it.
Collectors Weekly: Is there a certain color palette that’s popular with costume jewelry?
Tanenbaum: That depends on the season. If the runway is showing an acid yellow, that’s kind of the punch color for the fall. If they’re showing sherbet colors, that will affect what I put in the stores, because I’m generally interested in the fashion world. But as a collector, color is never an issue for me. I always choose the piece according to how it works as a whole, even if it’s monochromatic. There are many marvelous pieces that are monochromatic, and they work for me as well as others, providing it meets my kind of aesthetic criteria.
Collectors Weekly: Was Coco Chanel the first to coin the term “costume jewelry?”
Tanenbaum: That’s what I understand. In the 1930s, she developed this range of jewelry that was definitely costume jewelry—large flowers and frogs in pot metal. These pieces were such a change from what was out there, but because she was such an icon, people loved it. It was a relief. It was feel-good jewelry, and she was bold enough to make that transition because she had an audience that followed her aesthetic judgment. So yes, she was among the first, and I do think she actually coined the term because she felt that it wasn’t really supposed to make you look rich. It was supposed to adorn you. So that’s how she actually postured this new line of hers in the ’30s.
There was costume jewelry before, pieces made with non-precious metals, probably in the Victorian era, but they didn’t have the term “costume jewelry” at the time. That was the jewelry that was worn by the general population. Sometimes it was gold-filled, and sometimes rhinestones were glued in place in unpronged settings, but those weren’t considered precious at the time. They were for the public, and the prices were set accordingly.
Schiaparelli developed her line of costume jewelry almost in conjunction with Coco Chanel, but from a completely different point of view. Schiaparelli used big stones and big bracelets. She was inspired by Dada and the surrealist artists of the time, whereas Coco Chanel was inspired by writers and the fashion of the time.
Chanel made costume jewelry as a punch factor. Victorian jewelry was usually memorial jewelry or commemorative—for births, for deaths, for anniversaries, for special wear, to hold up a sash. It was really functional for both emotional and practical purposes. But during the ’30s, Chanel changed all that and made it funky and large. It became a statement in its own right. That’s really how people became interested in adorning their clothes with big, non-precious pieces.
Even the more conservative houses like Trifari and Boucher developed a line that was what I call crossovers, where they made pieces that looked real but weren’t. That was for a more conservative crowd. So the costume jewelry that was done in the ’30s satisfied the tastes of all populations, depending upon who the demographic was. Coco Chanel and Schiaparelli’s demographics were high fashion. The people who bought their pieces were interested in making big statements, but the people who bought Boucher and Trifari did so either because they couldn’t afford the real ones or because they didn’t want the real ones. They probably would never buy Chanel and Schiaparelli jewelry because that was too much of a statement.
Collectors Weekly: How much does costume jewelry actually copy fine jewelry?
Tanenbaum: There were certain designs that Trifari copied almost directly from Cartier. He started using the fruit-salad stones, the carved gem-colored stones that Cartier used in the ’20s and ’30s. His flower baskets and clips were almost identical to Cartier’s, but he signed them, and they weren’t precious. Cartier’s were all platinum with semiprecious and precious stones.
You could tell the difference, but the Trifari piece, which was very elegant and very clear in concept, would cost about $35, whereas Cartier’s would’ve cost about $175 to $200 at the time. So the difference lay in the price. If you looked at both of them together and you didn’t know a lot about jewelry, oftentimes you would think that they were from the same manufacturer. When you pick up a gemstone Cartier, it has a different feel than Trifari. It’s lighter. You turn it over, and it’s open-backed for the most part, whereas Trifari’s are rhodium-plated.
Collectors Weekly: Are most of the costume jewelry pieces signed or stamped?
Tanenbaum: It depends on the designer. I’m doing a book on Schreiner, who is one of my favorite designers. After reading about him, I discovered that he signed pieces that were going into department stores, but the couturiers put their signature on his pieces, so many of his pieces that you find today are not signed. It’s the same thing with other designers, like Sherman of Montreal. Some of his pieces were signed, some weren’t. Others like Juliana and D&E had paper hang tags that didn’t survive the decades. So you have to look for characteristics to know who the designer was.
Collectors Weekly: How did Henry Schreiner become one of your favorite designers?
Tanenbaum: Schreiner, to me, is one of the greatest designers of the ’50s through the ’70s. He was outside the box. He used color combinations that weren’t traditional. His structures were incredible—very creative, layering stones upon stones. His scale was oftentimes oversized, and his pieces, to me, are really the epitome of the art form. If you think of art wear, Henry Schreiner would probably be the greatest representative of that type of jewelry. He didn’t follow any formula. He was his own person. Everything was handmade in very small productions.
All of these things are what many collectors look for in a designer because they’re hard to find, and when you do find it, you feel like you’ve struck gold. Even though he had a very small production, he made hundreds and hundreds of designs.
There’s very little written on him. I want to put this book out because I want people to see his diversity. He’s the only designer that I know who really was unique with almost every piece. He didn’t have a mediocre collection at any given point, whereas other designers, like Coro or even Trifari, had a middle market and a high-end market that they had to cater to. Schreiner only had the high market so every piece, to me, is a masterpiece.
He actually hand-finished all his jewelry. It’s said that most of his pieces were handmade, not manufactured, although I’m sure that there was a degree of manufacturing. Maybe they were hand-finished. Maybe the frames of some of them were manufactured, because there were certain frames that he did over and over again. But all the finishes were hand done, whereas there are very few other designers who you can say that about across the board.
Dior had a line that was all hand-finished, but it also had a popular line that was mass-produced. By mass-produced I don’t mean in the tens of thousands. Dior kept its production small, but it was mass-produced on a much higher level than, say, Schreiner was, because he didn’t have that kind of audience. Dior had the audience of the fashion world, whereas Schreiner was doing pieces for Dior.
Collectors Weekly: Were there certain designers that only made bracelets or only made brooches?
Tanenbaum: Sandor was known for his brooches. Although he made some fabulous bracelets and earrings and necklaces, the pieces that are seen most today are his brooches. So I think everybody did everything, but certain pieces in their collections aged better over the decades than others.
“There were certain designs that Trifari copied almost directly from Cartier.”
Every form of jewelry was made into costume jewelry, including rings. Last year I couldn’t hold on to my cocktail rings because they were on the runways and many of the vintage rings look completely real. I would say rings, earrings, brooches, bracelets, necklaces, all of those have equal popularity and it’s been that way from the very beginning.
Most of the big houses made jewelry in sets because they figured if they could sell three pieces instead of one piece, it would be more economical for them. Cini came out with a zodiac brooch collection in Sterling silver, and that was only brooches. Goldette came out with necklaces that were only necklaces, sometimes a necklace and earrings set, but there were very few bracelets. So there were certain niche markets for certain people. I think that sets probably were done with the pieces that they thought were either a) most saleable or b) most extraordinary.
Collectors Weekly: When was the heyday of costume jewelry?
Tanenbaum: I think the heyday of costume jewelry, aside from today, was the ’50s when Hollywood became involved. When Marilyn Monroe did the Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, it gave costume jewelry that “Wow” factor that everybody had to have. Everything was depressed in the ’40s and they were coming out of wartime in the ’50s, so it was a time of joy and recovery. Lots of rhinestones and colored jewelry pieces were sold during that time, and there was no timidity in the designs. They were big and in your face.
During the war, all the conglomerate metals were taken off the market. A lot of plastic and wood was used because it was more modest and better priced for the times.
In the 1950s, all materials were again available, and that’s why they were able to make these great, chunky rhinestone pieces, because they were usually backed by either rhodium or pot metal or a base metal of some kind. Those were not available during wartime.
Collectors Weekly: And when did Bakelite come into the picture?
Tanenbaum: Bakelite was actually developed during the war because it was a product that didn’t burn, so they started using Bakelite for the radios and for practical purposes. Then Mr. Baekeland found that if you did a nice design—animals, figurines, bracelets—in Bakelite, it worked. So he made those, and they were very popular during that time. They’re still very highly sought-after today.
I have a fabulous Bakelite collection. I love the modern quality of it and also the feel of it. They took plastic and created magnificent pieces from it. It’s become very hard to find, and better pieces can go up to the thousands of dollars. The ones that are deep-grooved, whether it’s a flower pin or a bracelet, can stand up in anybody’s collection as one of the greatest pieces.
Collectors Weekly: Has your point of view evolved over time?
Tanenbaum: I’m a voracious collector. Let’s say I start a collection of Bakelite, and then, 10 years later, it has such a resurgence that it’s very hard to find new pieces. That’s when I’ll look for something else that interests me. It’s the same with Schreiner—it’s very hard for me to fill in my Schreiner collection, but I’ll buy a piece when I see one. Today I’m looking at wood and copper jewelry because these are the unsung heroes, and some of the pieces in wood, which were done during the Bakelite era, are really unrecognized but fabulous collectibles. The price points on both copper and wood are very low now, but that’s how Bakelite was when I started collecting it.
I look for areas that I can really develop. I love the porcelain Elzac pieces with these very funky faces and hair and felt thrown in. They charm me. So that’s another area that I love to collect now because they’re still available and they’re still affordable. So yes, I would say that as I progress, there are areas that I’ll come upon and I’ll say, “Oh, I love that! Let’s see what I can find in it.” If I stop growing, then I stop collecting.
Collectors Weekly: Are any of the designers still around?
Collectors Weekly: You mentioned you’re also interested in Coppola e Toppo.
Tanenbaum: I love Coppola e Toppo jewelry. He designed for Pucci in the ’60s. Every piece you pick up is extraordinarily made, with hundreds and hundreds of crystal beads that are encrusted in the design. They have a real masterpiece feeling to them. I don’t have a lot, I might have 30 pieces in my collection, but every time I see one that I love, I buy it. Here’s another case where there are certain pieces that I come upon that are kind of ho-hum, so those I don’t buy because they’re still expensive and they don’t do my collection any good. But when I find a great piece, I would do the stretch price-wise to obtain it because I know that opportunity won’t come again soon.
Collectors Weekly: Is costume jewelry popular world-wide?
Tanenbaum: Interestingly enough, it just started to become exciting to the Japanese and to the Australians about five or 10 years ago. I think that because the runway and the haute couture has embraced the style of vintage costume jewelry, it gets seen all over the world. So now Japan is very interested in vintage costume jewelry.
Today, Balenciaga, Armani, Balmain, Dior, each of these houses produces its line of costume jewelry that can be bought in department stores. Before, pieces from designers like these could only be bought at runway shows—you ordered it, or you saw on a dress and you bought that one. By developing their own lines, other parts of the world have become more interested in costume jewelry.
To be honest, I can’t see it not continuing because it’s such a given that these pieces are really the “Wow” factor in dressing. You can see somebody in an elegant Armani suit and then see that same suit worn on another person with a pin or a fabulous bracelet. And where does your eye go? It goes to the person who’s wearing the great adornments with it. Most of the designers, like Donna Karan and Prada, who were the most minimalist of our designers, have come out with costume jewelry. I think that it would be difficult for them to eliminate that kind of accessorizing from their clothing.
Collectors Weekly: What about Scottish Victorian jewelry?
Tanenbaum: That’s a bridge. It’s considered vintage costume jewelry, but you’ll see it mostly in antique stores rather than in costume jewelry stores. I’ve always had an interest in it. I love the combinations of agates and the rounded forms of the knots. It really appeals to me on so many different levels. It was done in the Victorian period; it’s not the Scottish jewelry that came out in the ’50s. This costume jewelry goes back to the 1880s. It’s quite remarkable when you see it as a collection. I think that Ralph Lauren had a showcase of Scottish jewelry in the late ’80s for quite a while, and then it became impossible to find, so he probably wasn’t able to refurbish his collection. It’s a remarkably tempered taste. People who would relate to Victorian would relate to vintage Scottish.
First of all, the quality is extraordinary. The materials almost bleed into each other. Agate stones would be flat with Sterling encasements, so it almost looks like one fluid material. The placement of the stones is usually very flat, so it appears to be almost a painting as opposed to a piece of jewelry. I just loved the knots that held the skirts together. They’re all lavishly adorned with agate, and some of them are four inches long. From a certain level, they interested me historically because the Scottish are such modest people and yet these pieces are almost their heritage. Their jewelry was used to represent thoughts and emotions, and it just has that intrinsically in the pieces themselves.
Collectors Weekly: Do you know any of the Scottish Victorian designers?
Tanenbaum: There are none. Actually, pieces were not signed for the most part up until the ’30s, so you never really know the designers. You know the designers now from their work and their characteristics. For example, there’s Bengal, the German machine-age designer. You know what to look for in a Bengal because there’s information about him now as a designer. But we wouldn’t have known that 15 years ago when information was very scarce.
Collectors Weekly: If someone is fairly new to vintage costume jewelry, do you have any books that you could suggest for them?
Tanenbaum: I wrote one book, Fabulous Fakes. It shows the best pieces of multiple eras, so if you pick it up and look at the ’20s, you’ll know what styles to look for. Another great book is Jewels of Fantasy, which was put out by the Victoria and Albert Museum in the early ’90s. Harrice Miller’s books are informative, too. I think the last one was in the ’90s, but I always use it as reference because you can learn a lot about the designers. The prices that she quotes are irrelevant today, but I do like her books. Judith Miller has a very good pedestrian comprehension of costume jewelry, too, and she is able to instruct a lot in her books. She has a new book out, which is a great format. It’s about 5 inches square and chockfull of information.
Collectors Weekly: What type of advice would you give to someone if they were new to collecting vintage costume jewelry?
Tanenbaum: First I would say to find out who the great dealers are so that they can at least study good pieces. They might not be able to afford those pieces, but it’s like you go to a museum to study an artist before you purchase a painting. There are many books on vintage jewelry that they could look through to see what attracts them, what they want to focus on, and then they can look for those types of pieces. They have to always ask the dealer questions, like whether a piece has been restored or embellished, because there are many more pieces out there that are fakes or embellishments than there are real. You would have to really trust your dealer on what he considers to be an authentic piece.
So they have to ask the right questions to a dealer. Are all the stones original? Is the finish original? Do you remember where you got it from? Oftentimes, if it’s from a personal estate, you know that chances are it is original, but if it’s from another dealer, then you ask the questions. And then you buy it if you love it. If it’s a lot of money for your budget, then you want to find out more about it, but if you love it for adornment and it’s within your budget and it’s in good condition, then you buy it. Look for the signature. If there’s a signature, Google the signature to find out a little bit more about it. See what else is in that person’s body of work.
Today, it’s a much different story than when I started. There are so many books that you can read. The Internet makes facts so easy to gather, and it’s fun to search for information. It’s changed everything for the better, I think, except that a lot of people have been burned on eBay because things aren’t represented the way they should be, but that is also a learning experience. And if you love a piece and you ask those questions to an eBay dealer, they’re generally honest because they’re put on the spot. If they don’t have it in their description and you don’t ask the question, then it’s buyer beware. If you ask the question and they feed you an old wives’ tale, then you have recourse. But in all my years of buying on the Internet, that’s happened so rarely that it isn’t even really worth mentioning. If you’re buying a piece for $50 and it doesn’t hurt your budget, you don’t need to ask the question. If you like it and it’s visually what you wanted, you buy it. But if you’re buying it to collect, you want to know that you’re getting the information that you need as a collector.
Collectors Weekly: Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Tanenbaum: Collecting is one of the great enjoyments of my life. I always say that a person who doesn’t collect anything is missing out because half the fun really is in the search. Although masterpieces might not show up on a frequent basis now, there are still beautiful pieces to purchase at antique shows, sometimes even at garage sales. The search trains your eye, and you’ll have an active part in collecting.
If you look at the masters of collecting, at collections like the Victoria and Albert Museum’s or those by people who really spend their life collecting, you get a feeling for what’s great. You can still find it out there, you just have to be in the right place at the right time often enough. If you find a piece, you feel like you’ve struck gold, and it’s a very rewarding feeling for somebody who’s starting their collection.
Also, wearing these pieces makes you feel very special because they’re always conversation pieces. People are still surprised at how beautiful a vintage piece can be and where you found it. There’s really no better way of posturing yourself as a unique dresser or feeling great about what you throw on.
It’s really a lot of fun. And it’s ever-present, because you read about it in the magazines. It’s not as though it’s a closet collectible. I think that people should take pride in and have fun with looking for vintage, but always rely on the expert’s eye in books and museum shows.
The Victoria and Albert is a very good reference because they always show something in vintage. Their permanent collection has vintage in it, and it’s a good reference point. You can always find masterpieces to look at and absorb at the Victoria and Albert. It’s fabulous.
(All images in this article courtesy Carole Tanenbaum of caroletanenbaum.com.)