PARIS — Forget dessert. After lunching in the Art Deco splendor of the Regina Hotel, Barbara Berger dives into a FedEx package containing the latest addition to her vast collection of costume jewelry: a rare Elsa Schiaparelli necklace from 1938.
“It’s like Christmas,” she says, admiring its gold patina before hoisting the strands to her throat. “Fabulous. I didn’t expect it to be so beautiful. This will be good for the show.”
The show she’s referring to is “Trop,” the French term for “too much,” set to open here April 29 at the Museum of Fashion and Textiles. It’s believed to be the first exhibition devoted to costume jewelry in France — and also will serve to introduce the vivacious Berger to the international fashion pack.
An American living in Mexico City for the past two decades, Berger has been collecting costume jewelry since she was 13, and has amassed a collection of almost 3,000 pieces, including works from the major French couture houses and such designers as Miriam Haskell, Deana Farneti and Roger Jean Pierre. Never mind that Berger’s father worked in the diamond trade in New York, or that her husband, Maurizio, is one of the largest dealers in fine jewelry in Mexico. Diamonds are not her best friend.
While a lot of costume jewelry strives to resemble the real thing, Berger’s taste runs toward fantasy — brooches shaped like blowfish, clunky cuff bracelets and necklaces positively bursting with nonprecious stones. “I wear everything — all of it,” she says. “I collect for myself. I don’t collect to have shows. It’s a passion.”
And how. She’s paid $12,000 or more for important pieces, spent years cajoling reluctant sellers to part with rare items and never unloaded a single bauble once it was in her clutches. In earlier days when she lived in Belgium, she also was a serious collector of Art Deco ceramics and opened an antiques shop to showcase them. “One day, Pierre Cardin walked in and bought everything in the shop,” she recalls. “I started to cry. After that, I actually went out and rebought most of the pieces.”
Curiously, it was a brush with another famous designer — Karl Lagerfeld — that encouraged Berger to display her collection.
Berger relates the story with relish. Spying Lagerfeld at the Café de Flore during one of her visits to Paris, Berger mustered the courage to introduce herself and tell him about her collection, which includes many landmark Chanel pieces. “I told myself, it’s now or never,” she says. Smitten with her instantly, Lagerfeld invited Berger up to Chanel’s Rue Cambon headquarters, where he encouraged her to mount the Paris show.
“She’s exquisite,” Lagerfeld says. “She is really charming and her collection is stunning.”
Some 700 pieces of Berger’s jewelry will be on display, spanning the Twenties through the late Sixties. While costume jewelry in the U.S. is produced in large quantities, the items produced by French couture houses in those years were often one-of-a-kind pieces. And many of the designers at the time worked for several houses. For example, Roger Scemama made pieces for Dior, Lanvin, Nina Ricci and Jean Patou, among others. “It’s often difficult to attribute who made certain pieces,” Berger says. Running concurrently is an exhibition of clothes with impressive ornamentation from the museum’s collection.
Berger, who has shown some of her jewelry in Mexico and received enormous crowds, expects the “Trop” show to be popular in France, too.
“When you go to a museum show, whether it’s Monet or Picasso, it’s wonderful to look at it, but you can never have it,” Berger says. “With costume jewelry, you can. Just go to your grandmother’s jewelry box.”