For Marilyn Monroe and many others, diamonds are a girl’s best friend. But that’s not exactly the case for Barbara Berger, who has been surrounded by fine jewels and materials from birth as the daughter of a New York diamond dealer and now, as wife of one of Mexico’s leading jewelers. The catalyst for her personal collection of over 4,000 exquisite pieces was a pair of simple Chanel clip-on earrings, which she purchased for $2 at a flea market when she was thirteen years old. To this day, Berger hasn’t stopped collecting. “My last acquisition was a breast-plate piece from a man named Heaven,” Berger told DuJour. “He’s Indonesian, twenty-nine years old, and he’s a genius. It’s body jewelry. It’s strange how I found him—he lived across the street from me when I lived in Belgium.”
The Museum of Art and Design’s newest exhibit, Fashion Jewelry, is Berger’s life work and passion come to fruition, and something she has been looking forward to and preparing for ten years. (Assouline has published a companion book.) The exhibit, sponsored by Miriam Haskell, consists of over 450 pieces from Berger’s prized collection, one that David McFadden, Chief Curator of MAD, tells DuJour is one of the most extraordinary collections he’s ever seen. “Barbara has always sought out the highest quality pieces, and so what we’re showing is the best of the best,” he said. “When you think of costume and fashion jewelry, you think of it as things that you can put aside and not pay attention to, but all of these are dramatic, theatrical, and the whole show speaks to the exuberance of this field.”
Standouts from the exhibit include a Maison Gripoix necklace made of rhinestones and white feathers, a Chanel necklace made of gold feathers worn by Tilda Swinton and a gilded metal and pearl grape cluster necklace donated by Miriam Haskell for the museums permanent collection. Below, Berger speaks candidly on her collection and why there’s no shame in buying jewelry from Zara.
On one of her favorite pieces, a Venetian-style crystal and pearl mask:
I just wore this mask in Venice. It is very heavy, and I had to wear it for a whole night. I only took it off to eat dinner, so I would say I wore it for four hours. I needed a deep facial afterwards and I’m still recovering, but it’s so fabulous and worth it. It was a masquerade and a concert by Elton John, so that was fantastic and worth it.
On discovering gems:
There’s a little dog [pin] by Trifari, it’s an Airedale, and I found it on the floor of the market in Mexico. I said, well, you know what? I’m going to give this to my friend who has an Airedale. I started doing some research for her on it and found out that this pin is a Jelly Belly and it’s worth $4,000, so I didn’t give it to her but she’s still my girlfriend.
On her favorite markets:
Paris, Budapest, and Australia. In Paris, the Paul Bert and Serpette flea markets are great, [but] you can find fashion jewelry any place.
This collection is years and years of collecting and a different time in life. You can’t find things like this as easily anymore—no, you can’t. It’s much more difficult and most dealers know what they have. But you can go to Zara and find a great piece—no, honestly, an amazing piece. It really doesn’t have to do with money; you can find fashion jewelry at an H&M. They have great stuff. It’s you who designs it yourself. It’s not easy to stumble upon a Lanvin or Balenciaga anymore; those days are over.
“Fashion Jewelry: The Collection of Barbara Berger” is on view through September 22, 2013.