Barbara Berger’s instantaneous love affairs with jewellery can strike up in the most unexpected locations. The New Yorker, who resides in Mexico City with her husband, jeweller Maurício Berger, was once strolling around the Zona Rosa market when she stumbled upon a pin of an Airedale terrier, which she immediately purchased with a friend in mind who has the very same breed. On her return home, while searching for something similar in her jewellery books, she realised the unexpected discovery was in fact a very rare Trifari worth US$4,500. You may also spot the fabulous septuagenarian surveying the hunting ground at La Lagunilla market in the capital or Paris’s Paul Bert and Serpette strips. She never shops online because “the spirit of the piece has to be felt in your hands,” she says.
“My entire collection is based not on historical value but the coup de coeur. Jewellery is a passion in my life. As time goes on, the collection has really taken on its own historical importance,” says the exuberant Berger.
Her formidable collection of the best in costume jewellery from the early 20th century to present day has showcased at the likes of New York’s Museum of Arts and Design, the site of an almost year-long show in
2013 that was accompanied by the book Fashion Jewelry: The Collection of Barbara Berger. In her foreword for the tome, Berger states no fewer than six jewellery decrees to live ardently by. The top of the glamorous manifest is: “Always put on more jewellery.”
Berger may be known as The First Lady of Costume Jewellery but she also dons fine jewellery by her husband and JAR. Diamonds have paved her adventures, marking both her early life and her romantic life — her grandfather, father, sons and husband all made their path in the diamond business. It has been suggested that her passion for costume jewellery is a rebellious response to what people may expect her to collect. But it is not the case. The adamantine is just part of her DNA, she says. “What woman would not love diamonds? Then she’s not a woman.”
She collects mostly fantasy pieces rather than structural ones and has long been drawn to the play of costume, saying with an air of deflation: “I wish I lived in the time of Marie Antoinette but unfortunately, I live in the time of grunge.”
“Jewellery should never be toned down. It is an expression of who you are, your style. It’s like putting on a facade before you go out of your house every morning. Every day is a different day and a different emotion,” she continues.
Her eyes are drawn to the extraordinary and unique designs imbued with humour, and one senses she is a canny jewellery seeker. Indeed, after the Madoff crisis, she was propelled to Palm Beach and Miami to see what the pawnshops were offering.
“I have always looked for bargains but if there is a piece that I really love, I would pay any price for it,” she explains. And she has a wealth of practice. She was just 13 in Paris, when her flea market missions began with a pair of Chanel earrings. On her travels, she likes to dress casually in black tights so she can run around unnoticed. But while she might like to be understated during the day, she embraces the over the top at night. “I think you should own it all but [as a dress rule] no woman should leave the house without a pair of earrings.”
She considers Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli and Miriam Haskell as the true visionaries of costume jewellery, but in her more than 4,000-strong collection, there are pieces from some 80 designers who hail from revered couture houses such as Valentino to contemporary designers she views as destined to be collectibles of the future. Some of them include Iradj Moini, David Mandel, Larry Vrba, Robert Sorrell and Daniel Von Weinberger. From each designer, she has her favourite pieces too. “Basically, I love them all,” she says. Some treasured examples include two swan hatpins by Schiaparelli and a Nina Ricci necklace with mirror-encrusted charms.
Berger describes her collecting raison d’être as “the pleasure of acquisition, the miniscule window that opens on a moment frozen in time.” Her jewellery trove also gives her security, a sense of wholeness and makes her feel complete. “I have triumphed over stressful times through the fantasy and the baroque with the soft touch of the wand that is my jewellery collection.”