When Karen Davidov saw antique shows and flea markets disappearing, she realized she needed to create a space to preserve and share the knowledge of jewelry experts. That’s why she founded The Jewelry Library, a small community space that hosts events, jewelry archives and hundreds of jewelry books, all available to the public. Karen joined the Jewelry Journey Podcast to talk about her journey to open The Jewelry Library, the importance of jewelry literacy, and what the library has in store for the future. Read the transcript below.
Sharon: Welcome to the Jewelry Journey. Today, my guest is Karen Davidov, founder of The Jewelry Library, located in Manhattan, New York City. The Jewelry Library is small in terms of square feet, but it accomplishes a lot within its confines, and its goals go far beyond its walls. Today, we will hear all about The Jewelry Library from Karen. Karen, welcome to the program.
Karen: Thank you, Sharon. I’m delighted to be here.
Sharon: So glad to have you. You grew up around jewelry. Your mother was a collector and she also co-authored several books about jewelry. Can you tell us about your own jewelry journey?
Karen: Yes, I can. I did grow up around it. My mother and my grandmother, her mother, both loved jewelry. They both had a lot of it, but I’d say my own journey started when I was about 11, when my mother discovered art deco. That was the late 1960s and I was in elementary school. I was an avid reader of Nancy Drew.
Sharon: Oh, yes.
Karen: I liked that type of work. That was my thing. So, when my mother would go on expeditious to antique stores and thrift shops, I was alongside her. I loved the search for streamline, geometric, Egyptian revival. I was on top of all of that. It was a junk shop, because it was really filled with junk, and it was hard to find art deco those days. It wasn’t on the radar. It wasn’t a mainstream design thing, so it was very much a hunt.
Sharon: It’s interesting. I know art deco was out of favor for a while, so I was wondering if you and your mom were onto something early there.
Karen: I have to say she was early onto it. It was just starting. I think there were a number of exhibitions starting to happen in New York. There was a big one in Minneapolis, and we had those museum catalogues. There were a couple of books about art deco design that had been just recently published. We had those, and I would page through them continually, studying art deco and learning what it looked like, and that included jewelry.
Sharon: Wow! That’s great.
Karen: I did that through high school, through college. I was looking. I was in and out of antique stores and I was starting to buy things that I’d find. But when I moved to New York after college, I wanted to work in the theatre. I was waitressing for a few years and taking classes and going to auditions, but it was getting to be time to find a real job. I looked in the classified ads of the New York Times, and there was an ad for a salesperson in a decorative arts gallery. At the end of the ad, it said, “Knowledge of art deco a must,” and I thought, “Oh my god, this is my job.” I threw on a vintage dress and I had a Trifari jelly belly, which I put in the décolletage, and I ran over to the gallery and got that job in about two minutes. Just walking in, I think they saw the Trifari and gave me the job, but I knew art deco. I was in my early twenties and I worked there for five years.
It was called Muriel Guépin Gallery. She had a collection of fine jewelry along with costume and silver, and I learned about all of the fine jewelry. She had David Webb, Van Cleef, Seaman Schepps, Cartier, Mahlbusant, Boucheron, and she had a wonderful collection of early Channel jewelry that she had gotten from the Rosalind Russell estate. I got to handle that very early on. I did my first Mexican jewelry show there. After I worked at the gallery, I became a private dealer, and I did the Pier Show in New York twice a year for a long time. I sold mostly fashion jewelry from the 1920s through the 1960s.
Sharon: I know sometimes people say they stopped dealing because they couldn’t part with things they found, or they loved. Did you have a problem with that?
Karen: No. That’s a good question for me. I loved finding things and discovering what they were, and once I knew what it was, I could let go of it. If it was unsigned, I’d buy it. I spent a lot of time doing research on the pieces I had. I was very much a seller, less a buyer. I loved selling.
Sharon: Tell us what The Jewelry Library is.
Karen: As you described, we’re an actual space, around 300 square feet, on Broadway in the low 30s in New York. I have a collection of about 400 jewelry books, which I move in and out because there’s not much space in there for all that. I also have a jewelry archive. I have file drawers with non-precious work from late Victorian through the 20th century and up to contemporary times, so I have contemporary jewelry as well. We are a collaborative space. I invite collaboration. I’ve been partnering with galleries and curators for shows, although we also do our own shows with some of the vintage pieces I have. We do a lot of talks with artists, and we’re very event driven. My focus is really building and growing the jewelry community.
Sharon: Who comes to the library?
Karen: I come from the vintage world, so I bring in a lot of vintage collectors. These were my friends, people I worked with, people I bought from, but I’ve also been getting involved over the last couple of weeks in the contemporary world. I get a lot of contemporary jewelers and collectors. We’ve made it our mission since we opened, which was late 2018—we’re fairly new—to show that visual or historical connection between contemporary work and antique jewelry. So, I hope it attracts both kinds of collectors.
Sharon: When you say contemporary, contemporary can mean a lot of different things. Do you also mean art jewelry?
Karen: Yes, definitely art jewelry.
Sharon: And you’ve had some great speakers.
Karen: We’ve had some terrific speakers. For jewelry week, we collaborated with Art Jewelry Forum. We had a talk on deaccessioning. We’ve done some great shows. I had one with Kiff Slemmons; Helen Drutt interviewed Kiff. I’ve collaborated with Sharon Cranson and some of his jewelers to talk. A lot of contemporary galleries like Gallery Loupe and Sienna Patti, I’ve worked with a lot of their artists to put shows in our space.
Sharon: I’m waiting for you to open your Los Angeles branch, because I’ve seen what you have and I wish I could go. One of your goals is to enlarge, expand and reinforce the jewelry community. What are your goals with that? Or maybe you need to restate what I said. What do you want to achieve through The Jewelry Library?
Karen: It is a little bit of a work in progress, particularly now as everybody’s feeling our way into what the world is going to be like when there’s more certainty and we’ve gotten through the pandemic. But I want it to be a platform for all these different conversations, and I think those are both personal conversations around jewelry and more public conversations. I’m very interested in the relationship between makers and wearers. Being a wearer, I come from that point of view, but I also want jewelry researchers and historians and writers to feel comfortable. I look at it as a place for networking as well, and I hope that it’s where collaboration can happen. It’s certainly where connection happens, and I think that’s jewelry. I think jewelry is a connector in itself.
Sharon: Do you have stylists come? Do costume designers come to look at the jewelry and get ideas?
Karen: Yes, and I think it’s my favorite part. I’ve been able to do it a little bit through the pandemic. I do have some stylists who are doing prints or music videos. I’ve been putting my art jewelry archive together for stylists and starting to photograph it, but sometimes I’ll get a style sheet and they’ll say, “Here’s what we’re looking for. Here are the ideas,” and I get to interpret that and put some pieces together. I love doing that and I want to grow that, too.
Sharon: Does a style sheet say, “This is what we’re looking for,” or “From this era”? I don’t know what that is.
Karen: Sometimes it’s a brand they’re presenting, but usually a creative director will come and they want a 70s feel, or we’re looking at 1960s space age jewelry, or vintage Victorian. I think a lot of it comes from the story they’re telling. I’ve worked with a few different stylists. As I said, I’m hoping to expand that a little bit.
Sharon: Do people check the books out and borrow them? How does that work?
Karen: I would say we’re non-circulating. You’re invited to come in and read them, and I do have people that will come and stay for four or five hours just looking through books. If it’s not rare, I will let a book out. I’ll let a book go home for a week or a weekend. I do have young people who are looking for a little inspiration come by, and sometimes they just want to page through to get some ideas or look at a book on history. I do let them out, but I’d say we’re primarily non-circulating.
Sharon: I know that, besides at the library itself, you have events in other spaces.
Karen: Yes. The building we’re in was historically a building for costume jewelry showrooms from the 40s on, and it still is. Much of the building has jewelry manufacturers from all over the world. There are people and showrooms from India, Korea, China, much more global now. We have a design office. My husband has an architectural firm, which we share with some graphic designers and an industrial designer, so it’s a big design firm on our top floor. That has a big, loft-type space, so I do hold our larger events up there. I keep a number of books up there as well, so we go up and down, but that’s my little space.
Sharon: You said you were a dealer for a few years. Then what did you do? How did you segue? I guess I’m backing up, but did you have so many jewelry books that you said, “I’ve got to something with these”?
Karen: I’d almost say that, even though I wasn’t doing the Pier Show anymore, I was still on the prowl for jewelry, so that was happening. But a lot of the work I did, as my main day job, was working with libraries. My husband also has designed libraries. I worked with libraries on community engagement, doing public arts calls. I loved the world of libraries. It was a place of discovery for me and I loved it. I was never a librarian, but I worked for years with libraries. I still hadn’t put it together, but my mother passed away about six years ago, and I had her personal collection. Her pieces and her extensive jewelry book collection were things I had grown up with, so I really knew it, even back from those early art deco days. So, I had her collection; I had her books, and because I had been a dealer, I had my own collection and books.
Things like the Pier Show had disappeared along with other antique shows and even flea markets, certainly in New York City, and I missed that community. I missed the people I’d see when I did it twice a year. I loved that community, and there were so many people that had a knowledge of jewelry that I knew was worth sharing. Sometimes I would sit—there’s an antique center here—and in the mornings, some of the dealers would sit around and pass around a piece of jewelry, and everybody would weigh in on what they thought it was, going back to my days when that was the interesting thing. “Do you think it’s English or is it French?” Those conversations were happening while things were disappearing. I wanted to create a place for that, where I could bring in those people so they could talk or share that knowledge. All those things were happening, and I felt that a library was a good place for that to happen, because it could be a resource for the community and it could be all sorts of things, whatever was needed. That’s how it came about.
Sharon: I always give people a lot of credit in terms of starting something from scratch and having the confidence to go out and say, “This is what I’m going to do.” You’ve talked about the idea—and I think you touched on it—of literacy in jewelry. It sounds like that’s what you’re talking about in terms of the research, the study. What do you mean by literacy in jewelry?
Karen: Yes, I think I’ve touched on it. A lot of the people I was talking about, experts in jewelry, they have handled jewelry for such a long time, and I think that’s part of the process: holding it, getting the feel of different materials, different techniques, different forms. I think it comes from the ritual of putting on jewelry, understanding how a bracelet feels, or how it connects on your wrist or having to have someone else connect on your wrist, like the weight of a necklace or figuring out where to pin a brooch. Those are all things that contribute to our feel for jewelry.
I’m interested, as a researcher, in the back of the piece, sometimes even more than the front. If I go to someone’s home, I’m always picking up things to look on the bottom. I do the same with jewelry—of course, when it’s on someone, that’s more difficult—but are there hallmarks? Is there a signature? How is it finished? This is the detective work that I love. Many contemporary art jewelers are putting a lot into what the back looks like, so there’s a public and private aspect of that. I see a lot of that, and I love that you can experience those two levels, public and private, at the same time.
At The Jewelry Library, in terms of jewelry history, I have many, many books that explore jewelry history from the 19th century through the 20th century. I have a lot of books on contemporary work. I’m always scouting around and scouring for old catalogues. It’s hard sometimes; not everyone signed their work, and it’s hard sometimes to find out what it might be or where it came from. I try to look for unusual jewelry shows or craft shows, and I look for them online and at flea markets. I’ve assembled a little collection of works from the midcentury on, a lot of early studio jewelry catalogues.
Sharon: And it’s a treasure. What are your plans with the library? Where do you want to take it from here?
Karen: You mentioned Los Angeles, and I have to say I’ve had a dream of the classic bookmobile idea, where I could take The Jewelry Library on the road, both books and popups in a small space. I think there’s a need for it; I think there’s a hunger for it. I think jewelry is a real catalyst for community, and not just amongst women; that’s a big part of it, because I do think men have jewelry stories or experiences with jewelry that are important. I think about that in the back of my head, how would I do that. If it can’t happen physically right now, I think about how I would do that virtually, this idea of popups in different communities. That’s one thing that’s out there.
I have short-term things that we’re working on. I have a number of series that we do at The Jewelry Library that we’ve been moving over to virtual. We have two story-telling series. One is called The Scoop, and it’s like The Moth meets Antiques Road Show. It’s real storytellers, and I’m going to do that virtually at the end of August. That’s really about how jewelry is a catalyst for larger stories about love, loss, friendship, identity. I usually have experienced storytellers tell their jewelry stories, so that brings in a whole other kind of community. I also have jewelry people who get sparked by hearing one of those stories and want to tell one, so we always have new jewelry storytellers coming in. We’re going to do that at the end of August on Zoom, but it’s usually live and very performance-oriented. My other series is really—The Scoop is about our relationship with jewelry, but my series Jewelry Detectives is much more about the pieces themselves. That’s about discovery, hunting for pieces, figuring out what they are, scoring some great finds, and that is my shout out to jewelry researchers. We’re planning on that, too.
Sharon: Sounds great. It’s great to be there in person, but the fact that I’m on the other side of the country has been helpful because I’ve gotten to listen or see things that were very limited—they’re in New York or just in one small place, so I like the virtual aspect.
Karen: I agree with you. It’s been incredible bringing a global audience to jewelry this way. It’s been amazing what’s happened over the last six months in positive ways around jewelry content. There was an idea floating around—a director of the library was talking about the idea of a living library, and that the people in the community would be the resource. I’ve thought about that. I think of The Jewelry Library as a living library, but I see that the living library lives online as well. All of that content, all of that expertise is online. There are museum curators taking to you through their jewelry exhibits and jewelry historians from around the world talking about their special areas of expertise. It’s pretty extraordinary.
Sharon: The library sounds like a fabulous resource. I do hope to get there and see it in person, but I love to see pictures because I can see all the fabulous books. Usually somebody’s in front of the wall looking at the fabulous books, and I’m always looking and saying, “Oh, do I have this book?” You have a quite a collection. Karen, thank you so much for being here today and telling us your story. To everybody listening, that’s it for today for the Jewelry Journey. Don’t forget that we’ll have images of the library and some of what it has posted along with the podcast on the website, TheJewelryJourney.com. It’s also distributed through social media. Please join us next time when our guest will be another jewelry industry professional sharing their experience and expertise. You can find the podcast wherever you download your podcasts, and please rate us. Thank you so much for listening.
Karen: Thank you, Sharon.
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