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NYC Museum Exhibit Spotlights Designer Costume Jewelry From Chanel, Miriam Haskell & More

“I used to have the hardest time wrapping my brain around why costume jewelry was so expensive,” said Los Angeles–based style consultant and retailer Cameron Silver on a recent episode of his Bravo TV reality show, Dukes of Melrose. “Then I realized, it’s really art.”

Fine jewelry retailers who have suffered a “disconnect” at the thought of paying premiums for brass, rhinestones, and plastic share Silver’s sentiment.

But “Fashion Jewelry: The Collection of Barbara Berger”—which opened June 25 at New York City’s Museum of Arts and Design—makes the case (quite convincingly) that grace and innovation in jewelry design aren’t always predicated on luxurious materials. (Coco Chanel, fashion’s most succinct legend, may have said this best when she exclaimed, “Costume jewelry is not made to give women an aura of wealth, but to make them beautiful.”)

The exhibition corrals more than 400 pieces of bijoux de couture from design houses including Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, Dior, Kenneth Jay Lane, Lanvin, Missoni, Oscar de la Renta, Pucci, and Miriam Haskell. Also on display are contemporary pieces from designers such as David Mandel, Iradj Moini, Robert Sorrell, Daniel Von Weinberger, and Lawrence Vrba.

Miriam Haskell is a cosponsor of the exhibit; the chief operating officer of Haskell Jewels, Gabrielle Fialkoff, hosted an intimate cocktail opening with McFadden and Berger on June 25.

Vintage Miriam Haskell pieces on display at “Fashion Jewelry: The Collection of Barbara Berger” (photos courtesy of Miriam Haskell)

The daughter of an American diamond merchant, Berger began collecting as a teenager when she nabbed a pair of Chanel earrings at a French flea market. She’s since amassed over 4,000 pieces of costume jewelry—one of the largest collections of designer costume jewelry in the world.

“Barbara Berger’s collection is unique in that she has collected consistently over so many decades, always seeking out the finest and most distinctive jewels from all of the major design houses,” David Revere McFadden, chief curator at the Museum of Arts and Design, tells JCK. “Her collection is definitely not ‘flea market’ variety fashion jewelry—these are dramatic and theatrical works that read well from the runway. They are also brilliant testaments to the excellence of craftsmanship found in the best of the design studios.”

Vintage Miriam Haskell pieces on display at “Fashion Jewelry: The Collection of Barbara Berger”

McFadden names Chanel pieces (“always a visual treat”)—along with works from early designer such as CIS, Trifari, and Coro—as the show’s standouts. 

The exhibition is divided into two sections: The first, open through Jan. 20, spotlights pieces by American and European design houses: Chanel, Balenciaga, Maison Gripoix, Marcel Boucher, Miriam Haskell, and Trifari. The second section, open through Sept. 22, groups pieces thematically—by materials, subject, color, and motif.

Berger, who likened collecting to a treasure hunt, said in a statement, “To talk about collecting costume jewelry is to talk about life, style, heart, and passion. Completing my collection has been one of the highlights of my life. My collection features what’s interesting to me—extraordinary, unique designs imbued with fantasy and a sense of humor. It’s usually love at first sight.”

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