The impeccably stylish Barbara Berger has been called a lot of things—power collector, free spirit and fashion icon. Catching up with her on the heels of the of the release of the book Fashion Jewelry: The Collection of Barbara Berger and a smash exhibition of her sparkling trove of baubles at New York’s Museum of Arts and Design last summer, we realize it wouldn’t be right to put a label on her anyhow. Growing up the daughter of a diamond dealer in New York, Berger developed an expert ability for identifying the exquisite and extravagant in everything around her. Which has made the Mexico City-based muse one of the world’s foremost collectors of fine jewelry, with an over 4,000-piece-strong collection (some dating back to the 1920s) that includes the handiworks of Coco Chanel, Miriam Haskell and Iradj Moini. An admitted flea market addict, she spends one-third of the year traveling the globe, hunting for treasure and discovering emerging talents in the jewelry and artisan worlds.
By Martine Bury
Tell us one word that describes you. Probably gypsy, as I am a traveling Sagittarius
Who inspires you? Michelle Obama, Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli, Iris Apfel—all women with strength and style
Where is home? Mexico City
How do you define style? Every woman has her style, the base stays, only the age changes and looks must adapt. Hip huggers, mini skirts and Victorian lace dresses—which I love—do not look good on a woman over 70.
Do you have a signature look? Yes, boho chic
How do you approach your far-flung adventures? I psych myself and go into a travel mode. I slow down my pace with nothing that disturbs me. I get together my magazines, books and movies in my Air Mac and do mental yoga on the airplane.
What is your favorite thing to do when you arrive at new destination? The first thing, even before unpacking, is to walk in the streets. I smell the odors of the restaurants and see the faces of the people in the streets. In other words, I start to feel at home.
You have an incredible jewelry collection. What are some of your favorite pieces? Each designer, of which I have over 80, is special and does unique work. If I could have a favorite designer and piece it would be from Coco Chanel, in her Mughal period. The workmanship and fantasy of a piece are most important to me.
In your opinion, which country has the greatest fine jewelry tradition? Italy, as I love Buccellati
Tell us the story of your favorite find or greatest discovery and where you found it. Too difficult—each piece has its story and provenance. Like children, I have no favorites. They would be jealous.
What are your favorite cities in the world and why? I suppose Paris and New York. The energy of New York and the beauty of Paris.
Where are your favorite street markets? I love the Marché aux Puces in Paris, the Sablon Antiques Market in Brussels and the 25th Street Market in New York. Each city has treasures to be found. Also, I love textiles from indigenous countries. I always go to the folk markets in faraway places.
What is your favorite non-jewelry treasure from your travels? As I have more than one collection, it’s probably a vase that I cherish. It’s Keramis with a matte finish and a type of Congo Belge design. I found this treasure in the Sablon Antiques Market.
What is your favorite hotel in the world? The Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc in Antibes. My husband and I have been going for over 35 years, and it only gets better each time I am there.
Where do you like to unwind? I unwind in my home in Mexico City or Careyes, which is between Manzanillo and Puerto Vallarta.
What is the best thing you have ever eaten abroad? I’m not a foodie but do love simple Mexican food. There’s nothing like a quesadilla in the restaurant Dulce Patria in Mexico
What are your favorite places to shop internationally? Paris and New York. I also can’t live without Dries Van Noten at The Modehuis in Antwerp, Belgium.
What is your top fashion tip while traveling? Be comfortable. Don’t wear anything tight or any makeup on long flights. Take off your shoes. And, I always carry my favorite blanket.
How do you bring a global feel to entertaining and your home? I entertain with flowers, flowers, flowers all over. It takes about a week to do my tables… I learnt so much from my dear friends Colin Cowie and Nate Berkus. As for flowers, my other muses are Preston Bailey, Zeze and the master Daniel Ost.
Tell us about the last picture you took. The last picture was in Careyes, Mexico during the Chinese New Year. As I am a horse in the Chinese Zodiac, this year has special meaning.
The most transforming place you have ever visited? My trip to Bagan, Burma by boat
Beach, city or countryside? Beach. My favorite place is Careyes on the Mexican coast, I have my home and heart there. There, my passion is fishing from my little Panga called Cookie.
Are you a spontaneous traveler? Or do you plan ahead? I never plan ahead. A gypsy is always ready to migrate.
*Image credits: Portrait of Barbara Berger © Pablo Esteva. Floral Brooch. Simulated pearls, rhinestones, gold plated. © Pablo Esteva. Chanel. Maison Gripoix (circa 1930s). Nettie Rosenstein (circa 1930s-1940s), United States. Rooster dress clip. Colored enamel, rhinestones, silver plated. Signed Nettie Rosenstein. © Pablo Esteva. Roger Jean-Pierre (circa 1950s-1960s), France. Fashion Jewelry: The Collection of Barbara Berger; Freirich necklace.