A brilliant vision

Lawrence Vrba “Fourth of July” bib necklace, early 1990s
Lawrence Vrba “Fourth of July” bib necklace, early 1990s

Photographs by Pablo Esteva

Many years ago, I had a colleague who would often jazz up her workday outfits with dramatic brooches or oversize rings.

She told me that when she was having a bad day, she’d just look at her dazzling baubles and imagine herself at the most exciting of cocktail parties.

Such can be the transporting power of jewelry, be it fine or faux.

You can envision yourself a Hollywood starlet or a Russian princess, a flapper swinging her pearls or a sophisticated study in Art Deco lines.

The way jewelry can tap into the various facets of someone’s personality – and reflect her interests and tastes – is on most glittering display these days at the Museum of Arts & Design on Columbus Circle in Manhattan.

It’s there that “Fashion Jewelry: The Collection of Barbara Berger” continues, no doubt launching countless jewelry daydreams along the way.

Berger, the daughter of a diamond merchant, grew up in New York. On a teenage trip to a Paris flea market, she began collecting. And while a longtime resident of Mexico City, she travels the world continuing to collect, as the exhibition’s guest curator Harrice Miller shares.

“At the last minute, she was adding in pieces as she was buying it,” Miller says with a laugh.

Miller, the noted Manhattan-based jewelry historian, appraiser, dealer and author, says she was already working on the text for “Fashion Jewelry: The Collection of Barbara Berger” for Assouline when the museum approached her to serve as guest curator for the exhibition, which was also organized by David McFadden, the William and Mildred Lasdon chief curator at MAD.

“Instead of calling it costume jewelry, we purposely called the book ‘fashion’ jewelry, because it really reflects the fashion of its time.”

Miller says she has known Berger for nearly a decade, first meeting her when the collector became a client.

The Berger exhibition, Miller notes, is “specific to her taste – but her taste is very expansive.”

As Miller says, “It’s a really good range of almost 100 years of the best.”

For museumgoers – and those who pick up the lavish companion title – it’s a real opportunity to savor a near-overwhelming treasure trove.

“It’s very rare anyone gets to see these pieces,” in person, Miller says of the hundreds of necklaces, bracelets and brooches on display, culled from a collection that tops 4,000 pieces.

The exhibition features works from well-known costume-jewelry designers and firms including Miriam Haskell, Trifari, Kenneth Jay Lane, Coro, Boucher and Schreiner. There is also work by contemporary artists, from Lawrence Vrba to Iradj Moini and pieces created for fashion houses ranging from Chanel to Dior, Yves Saint Laurent to Dolce & Gabbana.

The jewelry is sometimes abstract, other times figural. Images range from flowers to sailboats, crosses to swans. Materials include plastic and metals, glass and feathers, simulated pearls and enamels, velvet and Lucite.

The exhibition is as eclectic as it is historic, touching on pieces representing a broad range of designers, styles, materials and eras.

You can be admiring an elegant, circa-1940 fur clip by Eisenberg one moment and then be slightly surprised by the pop-cultural references of the 1980s “Safe Sex” collection by Billy Boy.

Throughout, the jewelry captivates and challenges, often inviting closer inspection.

“The mission of this museum is all about design and manufacturing, so it was important people could see some of the way, the methods of designs and manufacturing,” Miller says.

The exhibition has been getting plenty of attention. Elyse Zorn Karlin, the Port Chester-based jewelry historian, author and curator, led a tour of the exhibition for members of the Association for the Study of Jewelry and Related Arts, of which she is a founder and co-director.

“People were just blown away by it,” she says, noting she often went back. “I saw it three times because every time someone comes into town they wanted to go see it.”

What struck Karlin from the moment she saw it was “the scale and the number of pieces.”

In addition, she says the exhibition helps educate, showing how events and trends “in the marketplace, the news, in design” have an impact on the jewelry designer and his or her work.

Karlin says that many people with just a passing knowledge of costume jewelry will simply be amazed “that there are pieces this fabulous.”

For Miller, the pieces indeed are not only fabulous but also illustrate Berger’s devotion.

“Barbara, she buys from the heart. She buys what she loves. There’s no rhyme or reason.”

And that is just fine, as Berger herself notes in the video that accompanies the show.

“The basic thing in fashion jewelry is to have a wonderful time, and to be who you are, to present your personality.”

But it’s perhaps in her words about her connection with jewelry that will resonate most with those who have themselves gasped over a truly special piece.

“It’s never been who is the designer, what it costs. It’s always been… ‘It spoke to me.’ I would just see it as ‘This, I have to have.’”

For more on “Fashion Jewelry: The Collection of Barbara Berger,” which continues through Jan. 20 at the Museum of Arts and Design, visit madmuseum.org.

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