Jewelry According to BillyBoy*: An Interview with the Avid Collector of Haute Couture Accessories and Creator of Surreal Bijoux
BillyBoy* has had many loves during his lifetime, thus far. From designing clothing and “artwear”, writing about his muse Schiaparelli, collecting art, sculpture, rare antique and 20th-century dolls and toys to re-designing Barbie for Mattel, which set precedents for the doll. He is also known for amassing an important haute couture fashion collection, the largest privately owned in the world.
BillyBoy* has really nailed exactly what fashion jewelry is all about. His pieces are whimsical, have great scale, reference fashion history and can be found in museums like the Metropolitian Museum of Art Costume Institute, Musée du Louvre, The Victoria and Albert Museum, The Kyoto Museum of Art and many others. Since the 1970s he’s been cited in reference books and as of relatively recent like Fashion Jewelry, The Collection of Barbara Berger and the first 1990s edition of Jewelry by Chanel by Patrick Mauriés (nearly everything in the book belonged to him). His work is in important art and jewelry collections worldwide. He has become the “go to” expert for museums and auction houses when they have pieces which require identification.
His significance as a collector and preserver of haute couture accessories and clothing cannot be understated. He started at the age of 14 when he found a Schiaparelli hat with an gilded insect on it at a Parisian flea market. He began collecting early in his life, when haute couture pieces could be found for mere dollars, if one knew what they were looking for…. He is a highly regarded fashion historian with a collection of over 12,000 significant pieces of clothing and accessories chronicling the work of designers such as Dior, Vionnet, Balenciaga, Lanvin, Poiret, Chanel, and of course, his great love Elsa Schiaparelli. These last two designers he met as a child in the mid-1960s prior to their deaths. He also had the pleasure of having known nearly all of the last truly Old School haute couturiers in Paris and Italy such as Pierre Balmain, André Courrèges, Mme Grès, Jacques Griffe and Maryll Lanvin amongst many others. Items from his personal collection have sold at auction houses such as Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillip’s and Artcurial in Paris setting record prices. He has also assisted with dozens of museum exhibits on these subjects. BillyBoy*, in his early 20s already was a certified expert in France at the Union Française des Experts and for decades assisted the commisseur-priseurs like Camard, Millon, Tajan and many others at Hôtel Drouot in the heart of Paris.
With his new first book of memoirs called Frocking Life: Searching for Elsa Schiaparelli, published by esteemed Rizzoli Publishers International, which will be out on May, 24th 2016, his fashion endeavors continue. He’s looking forward to many future publications concerning his experiences in the worlds of fashion and art. He is also finishing a series of books specifically about his collections, each book will be organized by theme including Haute Couture Jewelry and Schiaparelli Haute Couture Jewellery.
Who is BillyBoy*?
BillyBoy* opened his atelier/showroom in Manhattan on Park Avenue in 1975 creating art work and wearable art style clothing, called “artwear”, which caught the eye of fashion influencers and the press such as Vogue and Women’s Wear Daily. He soon included accessories and jewelry made under the moniker Surreal Couture. Diana Vreeland and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in America are said to have called him their protégé and Yvonne Deslandres (founder of the Union Française des Arts du Costume … U.F.A.C … in the Musée de Louvre) called him her spiritual son and they took him under their wings. Andy Warhol reportedly called him his muse and “the last Superstar”. He participated in now-iconic exhibitions on this new genre of fashion and art such as Regalia at the Henri Street Settlement in Manhattan in 1980. He was voted Man of the Year In England in the mid-1980s and a Modern Legend by British Vogue in the 1990s, notably for his work as a contemporary artist mixing art with jewelry.
For several years after amassing the world’s largest Barbie doll collection including many hundreds of them uniquely dressed by haute couturiers and alta moda designers, he was a consultant and designer for the first Barbie dolls with a designer’s name on the box, one in which was called Feeling Groovy Barbie. These Barbies had an emphasis on his costume jewelry, as Barbie wore exact replicas in miniature of those he created for Bettina Graziani. He created an exhibition, now iconic, about these dolls which traveled throughout France and the United States from 1984 until 1988. As the muse to Andy Warhol, he was depicted in a painting as a Barbie doll, the painting being named “Portrait of BillyBoy*”. While this story in itself is an interesting one, today our focus is on Surreal Bijoux, which involves the likes of Diana Vreeland.
After he “retired” and moved to Europe in the late 1970s, his jewelry career really began. He started making and giving away jewelry when, a friend, the iconic 1950s fashion model Bettina Graziani, with whom he had a close relationship, urged him to start selling it. One day while she was having lunch with Gerry Stutz of Henri Bendel’s fame (she was the owner), they decided to call him directly and persuade him to do a show, which he did and it sold out in one hour after opening. Meeting, his soulmate and now husband in life in 1982, Jean Pierre Lestrade (known as Lala) played an important role in the creation of his art as well as the Surreal Couture/ Surreal Bijoux fashion and jewels which followed. They created a non-profit foundation to help artists in Switzerland in 1997, which has an active website. They also created a manifesto based upon an artwork of theirs which took the guise of a doll called Mdvaniiism : www.fondationtanagra.com and www.mdvanii.ch
What do you ask an iconic jewelry designer whose family was close to Salvador Dali, who drew pictures of him as a child and teen, who spent time at Andy Warhol’s factory, had friendships with fascinating people from Andy, William Burroughs, Salvador Dali, Gene Kelly, Cary Grant and Liz Taylor to Sid Vicious, Erté and Alexander McQueen?
The Interview and Jewelry Image Archive:
1. How would you define fashion jewelry? Why did you choose the medium you chose for your jewelry designs, as for the most part they were costume elements? Speak about the Pop art elements and recycled aspects a bit….
BB*: I don’t really think one can define it really because it can be so much. What was considered good fashion jewelry in the past are considered iconic works of art now. Just look at the works of Jean Schlumberger, Alberto and Diego Giacometti, Elsa Triolet, Countess Cis Zoltowska (I knew Jean and Diego and Cis personally, she was a true character!) Lina Baretti, Jean Clément and François Hugo, all who made jewels which now are thought of as art works. There are hundreds and hundreds more in Paris who did the same thing, though lesser known. In time, I hope that people will learn their names and hold them in high esteem. As long as you can use a piece of jewelry, even if not wear it, you can use, in a way, to make you think. When I started in the 1970s many of my pieces intentionally were not really wearable, and I felt that it was fine and good like that. If looking at it can be a good experience, if it made you smile or just think (even if those weren’t always happy thoughts) that was what was important to me…what counted was how someone would relate spatially and cerebrally to it and if it made them either happy or think differently, to see it and feel it, that was my priority.
I always chose to make art work with my stuff, so it could be just about anything. I think I was working in the true definition of Surrealism and Absurdism. At the very beginning, it was not a matter of wearing it, but understanding it as a work of art. I used irony and camp, sarcasm and poetry to express some very deep feelings within myself. I made a necklace of live insects inside a plastic flexible tube, I wore a live lobster tangled in fake pearls, I wore a gilded doll’s house wardrobe (a free standing closet) which opened to reveal a diamond heart as a brooch, which I later gave to Yvonne Deslandres as a birthday gift. I embedded diamonds in trash I found on the street. These things, at least some, eventually evolved into my doing more jewelry for people to wear, than as a thing to contemplate and see exclusively as a work of art. This happened when Bettina Graziani insisted I do something for Bendel’s. It struck my fancy because as I’d worked with them even earlier than that date, in the 70s, I was nostalgic and thought it could be fun. Lala and I used the old-fashioned chalky plâtre de Paris with stones in the Old School manner we had made by the parisian artisans which were still around back then. The joke was that the chalk would rub off on the expensive Norman Norell and Bill Blass suits the clients wore. I found it rather funny. I wanted to make the point, like Elsa Triolet had with her jewels, that anything worthless can be made beautiful and incorporated into something to wear. For my work, I used “recycled” things, like Dinky toys, broken 18th-century porcelain and dried out starfish painted gold, in my mind at the time, they were overlooked things which were poetic.
2. You did create a small amount of “fine” jewelry examples that are rare to find today, in both sterling and gold. Do you have any examples in your personal collection? What was the difference for you in terms of working in those mediums versus other materials?
BB* : I did create precious metal and real gemstone jewels (sometimes used zircons which was new at the time) for a while for special people who requested it. They were truly absurd as they were big and uncomfortable, but nice to look at. Lady Gaga would have loved them had she been around at the time. I used white, pink or yellow 24 karat gold, platinum, diamonds, rubies and emeralds. Very few exist and I lost contact with most of the owners, some died and some just went off my radar. I sometimes wonder what happened to them. I have one or two pieces myself. I did a whole show of them in the late 70s. Those were Russian Constructivist-inspired. Only some of these were eminently more wearable and pretty.
The Absolut Vodka company, thanks to Andy, asked to do Absolut BillyBoy* in 1987. I was the third artist along with Kenny Scharf to be part of that campaign. Andy was the first with Absolut Warhol and then Keith (Haring). Kenny and I simultaneously were asked at the same time. So, I did a scarf (in a thousand examples) with a drawing of mine, rather cartoon-ish, on it. This was made by the manufacturer who does Hermès and Chanel scarves. Acompanying it were a series of 1000 jewels. The scarf and jewels were given as gifts to “1000 of the most successful and influential women of the United States” according to the PR the Absolut company had. Many famous ladies I personally knew received a set. Simultaneously the owner, Michel Roux who is now deceased, ordered a series of 20 sterling vermeil, rock crystal and ruby pieces for himself and ten in 24 karat gold.
3.Why did you call your jewelry Surreal Bijoux, explain your experience with Surrealism and it’s importance to you for those readers who know only the basics of your influences?
BB* : I knew many famous Surrealist artists and authors as a child and teen; Bill Burroughs, Brion Gysin, Leonor Fini (who designed the Shocking perfume bottle), Dali, Diego Giacometti and many others. They inspired me and made me love this genre of artwork. I first founded Surreal Couture and then in Paris did Surreal Bijoux, on Rue de la Paix, number 6, right next door to where Schiaparelli started her maison de haute couture (she was at number 4).
I had the luck to have the opportunity to chose this property and then buy that place. I did not start Surreal Bijoux immediately when I moved back to Paris, but not too long after acquiring rue de la Paix Lala and I decided to do it there. In the beginning the president of Christian Dior and his wife were partners but after a month or two I bought them out because they wanted to create a big business with a big commercial vision they had. I did not share this idea for my work, so after a difficult negotiation, I bought them out for more than they paid for their shares. They argued that I was going to be wildly successful and they wanted a compensation for my sudden desire to own the company entirely. So I paid them quite a lot more just to retrieve their shares. I wanted to work exclusively with my partner Lala. He was a well-known singer and had just launched his first single, Jolie Fille D’Alger when we met. You can find it on Youtube.
4. Why Elsa Schiaparelli? What about her versus any other designer captivated you so deeply?
BB* : Well, that is a very long story which you will be able to read in my upcoming Rizzoli memoirs (May 24th 2016 is the publication date for the moment). I found a hat at the puces de Clignanacourt, and I had a full-blown, full-blast metaphyscial experience. I had met her a number of times as a child and it was only about two or three years she had been gone, back to the world of souls that this odd hat and I found each other. I literally tripped out of my mind into a dimension of absolute love when I physically picked up that hat. It was truly an experience which required a whole book to explain. For me, she is someone I have a soul contract with.
5. How did she influence your jewelry? What are some other designers that have captivated your imagination?
BB* : It’s not that easy to explain, but having seen so much of the early Jean Clément and Roger Jean-Pierre jewels, they had a chunkiness and a hand-made look and feel which I found enthralling. I liked the contrast of the brutalistic fastenings and the way her jewels were juxtaposed against the luxurious and refined materials. I also had a huge fascination for the odd colours and peculiar contrasts.
I have had many friends and acquaintances who were jewel designers like Kenny Lane as well as artist and jewelry-maker Andrew Logan…. I met and befriended in varied degrees, nearly all the others from generations past like Mme Gripoix whom I knew since 1973 and Roger Scemama to Robert Goossens and I am sure they influenced me in some way or another. I love the hand-made aspect of costume jewels. One of the greatest kinds of luck I had was to be able to know, befriend and work with the very last remaining old school artisans who were by then near the age of retirement, but still active. I knew Mme Gripoix, Scemama, Cis, and Desrues and worked with them all. I worked with Lukés who did some of the first Chanel jewelry, and the company Janvier who did Chanel’s chains and when I designed chains it was these artisans who made them for me. I worked with Gripoix and others in the field of pâte de verre and emaille and all the stones Lala and I designed were made by artisans who were established over a hundred years by that time. Apart from these stones and elements made just for my own jewels I had access to old stock and used wonderful beads, stones and strass from these now iconic names. Swaroski at the time was a name nobody except those in the business knew. I still have hundreds and hundreds of exquisitely wrapped stones by them in colours made just for me. When I first started and throughout my career in Paris, I had this amazing privilege to be part of this old school community. They were my friends and fellow artisans who contributed to my success. It was a pretty closed community, but once in it you could consider yourself there for life. It was very rewarding and very satisfying to work this way. Now that it is gone, and I see how branded jewels are made, nearly everything is made in China, the Orient and India, I miss it and have a little nostalgia for it. Some of the French ones were bought by Chanel and industrialized. It also makes seeing all the horrible errors in descriptions I see today, in the world of collecting European costume jewelry that much more annoying… I often I read completely incorrect evaluations and descriptions. I almost feel it’s my duty to pass on the real information I have and the experiences I have had. To summarize it I could say, not every Gripoix jewel was for Chanel, not every quirky piece of pre-war French figural jewelery was by Schiaparelli. Besides, most of these jewels were designed and made outside the haute couture house itself and was actually designed and made by others. Jean Clément for example was an unsung hero up until these last two or three years and still mostly nobody knows about him. Though only of late, I see his name bandied about and incorrectly attributed to others who worked in a similiar vain, such as the company Doliet and Création Art et Décor.They made things which resemble Clément and we are years away from dealers understanding the differences.
6. How important was Diana Vreeland to the trajectory your work took?
BB* : I was her protégé. I cannot underestimate how much she helped me and her devotion to me and getting my work “out there”, as she’d say. She did so much for me and opened so many doors for so many things. She shared her experiences and her knowledge and she introduced me to friends of hers who later became friends of mine. She taught me the word pizzaz and her ideas on what real chic was. She told me that I had a natural and instinctive sense of chic and she found it very amusing since I was so young.This meant a lot to me as I was always so aware of my strange alien type features and body. Her encouragement helped me get over my doubt about my own skinny awkward looks.
Naturally, I also was deeply flattered and honored. She was truly one-of-a-kind. I am not sure people know to which extent she was unique. I know she is greatly admired and respected and iconic now, but there seems not to be anyone like her with that amazing generosity she had and that vibrant love affair with life she had. When branding came in in the 1990s and real haute couture died when Yves Saint Laurent passed away, people as brilliant as Mrs Vreeland stopped becoming renewed into the world, or so it seemed to me. I think this kind of magic will come back, but perhaps not soon. Isabella Blow was one of them but her tragic demise made her stay here on earth brief.
7. While I’m on the subject please indulge us on Diana Vreeland’s jewelry collection-did you ever see it? Do you own any pieces belonging to her? What was her taste in jewelry like? Did she have a piece she wore most that you noticed?
BB* : Of course I saw it, she showed me everything, as I was so curious to see the real thing! I was like a slightly mad little puppy bouncing around and wagging my tail at all the beautiful things she’d show me and telling me their stories, I was in rapture. The real deal of what was what and who was who was mesmerizing. She gave me a number of things I cherish like a pair of Schiaparelli Schlumberger-made baby frog women’s cufflinks which are as big as the real thing and I also bought some of her things, notably the authentic Chanel Fulco di Verdura cuffs when she had her sale at Sotheby’s in the 80s. She had the real deal and the copies by Lane, which I did not buy.
She was into the dramatic, the pieces which had some reference, like Saint Laurent pieces from the Russia-inspired collection or the China-inspired collection. She wore a big thing, some sort of animal tusk (it looked like a wild boar’s curved tusk) as a pendant which she wore long or short by inserting it through the end and making a choker which had the tusk dangle on the side and she wore a wide variety of cuffs, notably Indian-style ones in I think bone, which looked like ivory. She wore them with grace and cuffs are not that easy to wear and she wore great YSL chain belts. Like when one has long manicured nails and you use your fingers more stylistically, wearing cuffs make you use your hands in a very elegant and different way. Diana has wonderfully expressive hands, always manicured with bright red polish.
She also liked heavy, dramatic and unusual chain necklaces. They looked Etruscan or ancient and though they had a great simplicity had drama as well. She wore a lot of my jewelry and in the sale of her jewels there were one or two pieces of mine. I think she kept some for herself and later gave many pieces to her family.
When I first met her in the late 1960s, I was still a child, but I vividly recall she still wore turbans or wraps around her hair with antique military medallion brooches pinned to the top; sometimes one, sometimes two. She wore great old Chanel pieces and a lot of Kenneth J. Lane who made special pieces for her too, as I would later on. Kenneth Lane did great copies of other designers and as I mentioned earlier, she had “Verdura” style cuffs reproduced by him.
The only person I know still alive, whom I do not know personally is of course Mrs. Iris Apfel. Those I do know are wonderful people like Barbara Berger who wears jewels too with a Vreeland touch. I haven’t of yet met a young person with the exception of my friends the stylist Catherine Baba who truly knows about how to wear jewels and clothes. She is almost a time traveller from the past as the use of drama and flair with fashion is inately in her. The other person is Monsieur Laurent Mercier a.k.a Dragoness Lola Von Flame, who is my “drag daughter”. She totally get’s it too. I invented the word Dragoness (a mix between a dragon and a Countess) for my late friend Maxime de la Falaise and Lola needed a title so I said she should be a Dragoness as well as if she did not accept the title, the era of Dragonesses will have died out, like dinosaurs. I am sure other chic woman and even men still exist who wear jewels like Diana but I’d have to sit down and think for a while to come up with whom. I think anonymous, unknown ladies (and perhaps some men) are still out there with that special understanding of jewelry, but they are a dying breed.
8. For the BillyBoy* jewelry collectors? What do you see as your most iconic and important themes or pieces?
BB* : That’s hard to say. I have never really thought in such terms, but I think it’d really be dependent on what kind of collector you are talking about and what that someone would want to do with the pieces by Surreal Couture or Surreal Bijoux they may have or collect. It is what matters to the collector in their life that would define the answer to your second question. I know some people tend to really gravitate towards those huge pieces I did as art works and which are probably the most eccentric. When they come up for sale in auctions, notably in Europe, they sell really well. I know museums have been buying them too. These pieces, the collectors I know display or wear them rarely and like them, – I suppose, for the concept and the contrasting ideas in them, the way art works should be appreciated as. For example a wonderful collector of my work lives in Hamburg, Germany, her name is Christiane and she has truly some of the most remarkable pieces I have done, some we custom designed and made just for her. She inspired me many times. It’s a very exciting type of relationship; the kind between myself, artist and herself, devoted collector. She has what I could say are the best of the best of my work. Her collection has the most lavish surrealist pieces I’ve done and just for her. She has not just one piece but the whole parure: necklace, pendant, earrings, a pair of bracelets and several brooches all with the same theme and all matching.
Others collect what they intend to wear, the haute couture I did for all those designers in Paris and London in the 1980s and 90s for example. The Thierry Mugler pieces we did I am rather fond of. Personally those pieces I think are truly personal successes for myself. They are not necessarily wearable or even understandable but I like them still. The pieces in the Met Costume Institute or the Louvre all have very close connections to my life, so I am rather fond of them too. These pieces they have were amongst my most personal and eccentric. A piece I have worked on since 1975 (and own as it was never available to buy) of hundreds of Bakelite bracelets strung like beads and several meters long is one of them. When it was small, and I wore it as a necklace as it only had just twenty bracelets already, wearing it was very hard as it weighed already then quite a lot. The piece I named “Self-Portrait”. Andy really immortalized the Joan of Arc collection which he wore everywhere. Yvonnes Deslandres often wore my over-sized starfish and Jackie Kennedy Onassis wore many forms of the hearts I adored making and many variants I had done for her over the years of our friendship. Mrs Vreeland wore some really big Surreal Couture and Surreal Bijoux pieces, bigger than most people would consider wearing. I recall a summer we spent a few weeks in Christophe de Menil’s house in France and she had this amazing Oceanic art everywhere and that inspired me for shapes. I am fond of those pieces as they are big, heavy and graphic. She supported my work too, which is such a pleasure for me as she is an art collector.
9. How many examples of jewelry do you estimate you have made over the years?
BB* : The ones I made by hand, I have no idea. However those that were made as Surreal Bijoux must be in the thousands but bear in mind each and everyone was hand-made or finished and Lala or myself personally inspected nearly all of them. We did an early show at Maison Jansen in Paris which had, literally 1000 jewels each and everyone a unique creation. It took us months of night and day work with a staff of workers but we did it and it was a very big success. It was like Ali Baba’s cave. We also did a show at Lou Lattimore in Dallas which was a similar thing, hundreds of pieces all one-of-a-kind. We had a boutique in department stores like Bloomingdale’s Bonwit Teller, I. Magnin, Barney’s NY and Sak’s Fifth Avenue. Lala and I wanted to evoke sumptuousness and luxury without using luxurious old leitmotivs or materials, so these big stores really made a big effort and exception to give so much space to such a rather unusual type of jewelry. I suppose back then stores took more risks than they do today. It was so much fun in any case. Most of my earliest work is in museums like the Musee du Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute, and The Victoria & Albert Museum, The Kyoto Museum, etc. etc.
10. You also did accessories like hats or shoes, do you have an image of those or favorite designs?
BB* : Yes, of course, my favorites were the sunglasses. We made some for Ray Charles and he wore them a lot and that stands out as being something I have loved doing. My hats, I did so many, and all those I kept for myself were taken by the Louvre in 1982 and they are mostly all inspired by Schiaparelli.
Back in NY in 1980 a furniture design gallery called Art et Industrie was in the newly trendy Soho and I had a wonderfully fun and big fashion show there. It was owned by a man named Rick Kaufman and he had a wife, or girlfriend, I cannot recall, named Tracy Rust who was like Auntie Mame and he bought her an olive necklace I made of olives I hand-carved and enclosed in a vintage olive bottle jar which was from the series as the peanuts necklace in the Met and the pizza necklace which I kept for myself. She also acquired a harlequin hat from a series I made inspired by Schiap and hers I used in my performance called Harlequin Hold Onto Your Hat at Victoria Falls, a fancy gallery/shop also in Soho owned by Rena Gill that sold rare vintage clothes and artwear. The artist Colette (of Colette is Dead) had done a show just before mine. My late friend Jeffrey Geiger did pictures of it. The hat ended up in a huge feature story about me in the then-trendy Soho Weekly News where the article said I was a Renaissnace Boy. A great number of clothes were taken by the Louvre and I recall specific pieces I enjoyed doing so much. The Pagliacci coats with embroidered lips was one of my favorites and jackets I did with Mimi Gross hand-woodblock prints (I kept one for myself) were really thrilling for me to do. Mimi is such a vibrant artist.
11. Were any of the pieces you made unsigned, perhaps when you first started creating jewelry in New York?
BB* : Many were signed, I think nearly all except maybe the Flintstones bracelets and fifties looking multi-strand bead necklaces which are in the Louvre may not have been signed. But on the whole, most are signed and documented.
12. When you began to focus on jewelry in Paris, what roles did Jean Pierre (Lala) and Bettina play?
BB* : Jean Pierre who I always called Lala was essential to every aspect of my life and the work …we were in complete osmosis, we are soulmates so it’s practically telepathic, we work perfectly together since the day we met and the day we started to do things together. I cannot emphasize it enough but he is essential to my creating and my happiness. I cannot even imagine what my life would have been without him. Bettina Graziani and Bettina Bergery were two of the major friends in my life and that introduced my jewels to everyone they knew …which is saying a lot since they were two of the most famous and most beloved fashion people of Paris for decades. Huge stars like Liz Taylor, Lauren Bacall, Zizi Jeanmaire, Arletty and Jeanne Moreau and so many others, and it did not stop at stars and socialites but includes many important people of royalty, Princesses and Princes wore my stuff thanks to them both. Bettina Bergery in my life is a book unto itself, whom I was very, very attached to since childhood. She was a Schiaparelli model since the 1920s. Her title was Honorable Madame Bettina Bergery as Gaston, her dapper husband, was a very famous political man, lawyer and was known as a great supporter of the arts. He was granted the Legion d’Honneur after the war by De Gaulle. She was the ultimate parisian femme mondaine and we were equally if not more close than Bettina Graziani and I. She was like nobody I can describe. She was part of my soul in a way. Diana and her were close friends and she was one of the first models for Schiaparelli and muse to artists like Dali and Picabia and Man Ray. It was Bettina that modeled the necklace by Elsa Triolet Schiap called the “Aspirin necklace” and I have the necklace and the Man Ray photos of her modeling it. It is funny because I used to always work late and Lala and I would stop by her house almost every day and I’d fall asleep on the day bed after we’d eat dinner. At Bettina Graziani’s house, I’d go often for lunch and I had my own bedroom in her classically beautiful apartment on Rue de Grenelle to fall asleep in. On weekends I practically lived there after Lala and I moved to Normandy. Sometimes, regularly in fact, though I’d eat lunch with Madame Grès who was my friend and neighbour on rue de la Paix. I’d spent a half an hour or an hour watching her drape a dress afterwards where we’d chat about everything under the sun. I asked her about her costume jewels all the time, for which I have many. They are rare but so evocative of her taste and vision of classical beauty. They look rather tribal and primitive. Often made from bronze, iron and steel, there was nothing fussy. They were very modernistic and not at all baroque, but sober and they go perfectly with her clothes.
There is a chapter in my upcoming book called The Two Bettinas which tells a bit more about this odd friend situation of mine. Bettina Bergery in the 20s and 30s and Bettina Graziani in the 40s and 50s were both extremely famous fashion models. They were in a silly sort of way rivals in regards to me because Bettina Bergery was purely aristocratic, she was a Shaw (related to Bernard Shaw) and was truly part of the most inner, most privileged and most elite circles of Paris intelligensia. She knew all the famous artists and authors and all of Europe’s aristocracy/high society. Bettina Bergery thought of Bettina Graziani as someone very Existentialist as Bettina G. knew all those people, like Franciose Sagan and Juliette Greco. Also she thought she was very “Hollywood”, as she knew many stars. “Hollywood” though in her mouth was a sarcasm. She often asked me “How is your friend, you know the country girl, what’s her name, the one with the boy’s hairstyle ? She’s so quaint.”
Bettina Graziani thought of Bettina B. as very snobbish Old School Parisian and intimidating as she was truly part of the great art and literature culture of France and was truly American Royalty. Getting them together at our jewelery shows or dinner at home was hilarious, because they were always so elegant and polite with each other but you could see Bettina Graziani streaming from afar. They never outwardly said anything truly mean but only little spikes of annoyance and mostly from Bettina Graziani as she was very possessive of me. She knew how deeply attached I was to Bettina B. I loved them equally but as anyone knows, no love is explainable. They both owned parts of my heart. They were very different yet very important equally to my heart.
13. In 1984 you opened your atelier/showroom and offices with companion/partner (now husband) Jean Pierre Lestrade/Lala. What was the “Surreal Bijoux” workshop and showroom on mythical Rue de la Paix in Paris like on a daily basis?
BB* : It was hectic. There was my office in the back, which was painted violet with black furniture and books up to the ceiling in a corner. The showroom was smallish and just had black tables against all the walls and velvet trays were on them, there was a big main atelier and a smaller room for supplies and stock. The main room had big work tables and each worker had their station where they did one special aspect of a jewel. There was gilding, there was moulding and sanding, there was the one who did the setting of thre stones and another for the dangling beads. Lala directed everything and as I was very very strict about following the designs exactly, Lala saw to that but he also did many, many of the pieces from my suggestions or one basic sketch, he’d elaborate the idea into jewels for overly big pendants and the same design made small for matching earrings. He came up with many ideas and we spoke endlessly about them. I don’t think we ever disagreed on a single jewel – it was like osmosis. He also did all the plaster prototypes for the molds. Private clients came all the time and asked me to design unique things for them and journalists and stylists came all the time to do stories or borrow pieces to put on stars in the magazines like Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Elle and Marie-Claire amongst many others. Many, many stars came and it became a little party where we’d drink champagne and laugh and they’d try stuff on. One never knew what a day would be like as we had no idea who’d drop by unannounced. I rarely spoke to the workers except for good morning and good night and at Christmas they got their bonus, could chose a jewel. I later learned that one of them stole jewels from us and bragged about it. Lala said he regretted having hired her. Most of them however were charming and were sorry when we moved to Switzerland and we let them go with severance pay and great recommendation reference letters.
At the top period we must have had eleven or twelve workers in the atelier plus my secretary, Lala’s secretary, assistants and representatives who went out and showed the jewels to shops and department stores. Lala always dealt with the haute couturiers and designers whom we did jewels for. He has a much more convivial nature than I and everyone in Paris knew him for being so sweet and kind and fair. I unfortunately always remained a mystery and almost never dealt with anyone except the very élite private clients, stars, royalty and my friends who wore our stuff. At one point in the early 1990s we also had a wonderful gallery showroom for the jewels and the Mdvaniis on rue de Cherche-Midi close to Paco Rabanne. It was entirely Schiaparelli pink, with a circus tent made of Shocking pink fabric which the House of Schiaparelli gave me in the 1970s. It rose to a point in the middle and had a chandelier in iron covered in violet and pink silk flowers which matched a swagged frieze around the room of the same vivid flowers. We had Paul Poiret furniture lacquered Shocking pink and furniture we designed to match it. The floor was also Shocking pink wool carpet. It was an old 19th-century registered national monument building and shop so it had the painted glass panels outside and gigantic BillyBoy* Goons in Shocking pink as handles to the door. On it was stenciled “Poupées, Luxe et Volupté” paraphrasing “Luxe, Calme et Volupté”, the title of a 1904 Henri Matisse painting which is taken from the poem L’Invitation au voyage from Charle’s Beaudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal.
14. Did you create couture hand-made pieces in limited quantities or were some designs manufactured on a larger scale? Was Henry Bendel the first store to carry the jewelry?
BB* : Yes, mostly all were haute couture but we did several series in metal, for Charles Jourdan and a few other haute couture designers which we distributed worldwide. Henri Bendel’s was the first client of Surreal Bijoux in America, but I’d been selling my jewels long before with them and Bloomingdale’s, Bonwit Teller and Sak’s. In Paris, I think it was Maison Jansen, the iconic interior decorators who sold the jewels first. The Maison Jansen was right in between the Art Nouveau masterpiece that is the restaurant Maxims de Paris and Pierre Cardin’s haute couture hat salon on Rue Royale. The owner was the jovial and chic Mme Jeanne Gambert de Loche who was rather enamored with the jewels and she insisted I do a gigantic show there which Lala and I did.We did a film at Vogue Studios and had go-go dancers, male and female in my own Mod-era clothes, in the windows. There were three minor car accidents the night of the show due to the very brightly coloured lights and noise coming from the otherwise classic and conservative French establishment. The show was such a great success, the jewels sold almost out the night of the opening were nearly every star I’d every heard of was there. The success was such that Mme Gambert de Loche made a boutique of the jewels there for many years which worked astonishingly well, with sales and publicity which was a surprise to us as we thought such a conservative place would not have clients who’d be into such funkiness. Mme Gambert de Loche was very happy as were we at the unpredictable success of the jewels there and for such a long time. We sold in most major luxury boutiques and shops and department stores throughout France and later England, with Liberty of London and an important designer of the time named Scott Crolla. We had entire boutiques in these shops, like in the USA and they were very successful.
DATING BILLYBOY* JEWELRY:
15. What difference in signature can be found on early pieces versus later or one of a kind, hand made versus more produced items?
BB* : Early Surreal Couture (as early as 1975) are hand-signed Billy Boy (this spelling) or had a tag with a stamp marked Surreal Couture, 7, Park Avenue with the hand-written facsimile Billy Boy (with and without asterisk) signature.
When I moved to Paris in the late 70s, and soon after meeting we started doing jewelery in the kitchen of our Paris apartment, the first ones were made in plaster of Paris and hand-signed by Lala in ink (mostly blue or black or gold on fuchsia Shocking pink) in script letters marked Billy Boy (with or without asterisk).
Then I used a new for the times material called “Plastiroc”, which is a kind of Fimo plaster that hardens, they were signed also by Lala with a pin, the name Billy Boy also written in script letters. They when we moved to rue de la Paix and founded Surreal Bijoux, we had a gilt oval tag stating BillyBoy* Surreal Bijoux ©) with my logo letters.
Then many jewels were cast in metal with my name in my usual font BillyBoy* – Surreal Bijoux – Made in France with the date (86, 87, 88 or 89 for example).
Some were cast into the metal with BillyBoy* copyright or BillyBoy*, Paris copyright.
Some jewels made in woven fabric exactly like haute couture labels, these appeared for example on such pieces as knit necklaces. These were Shocking pink, a woven Goon (my soul on a cloud, sometimes people called him a gingerbread man though his real name was “Goon”). The goon was either gilt gold metallic thread or silver metallic thread marked BillyBoy* Surreal Bijoux N°—. The number was for the haute couture client number and season etc. I am about to relaunch some limited-edition sweaters with the same label.
The most recent are the Mdvanii logo, marked Mdvanii, Paris and it is often engraved with the client and haute couture number on the back. It is a huge three inch métal tag, imitating the Mdvanii tag on the back of a Mdvanii doll.
Boxes have stamps, or embossed names, sometimes with Mdvaniiism de BillyBoy* & Lala.
These newer boxes have Mdvaniiism BillyBoy* & Lala with our finger prints in gold in a 2.5 inch gold circle. We use these on our serigraphs, silkscreen and photograph prints as well as other artworks.
16. Please describe your time working with haute couture designers in Paris making jewelry for them in the 1980s: How did it add to your experience as a designer? What was your favorite moment where you saw your work in context of another designer’s collection? When it just really worked or dazzled you.
BB* : Most of the designers I was friends with or at least frequented them socially. I went to their homes for dinners and parties, they came to our homes. Naturally, as the reader will discover in my new book, I was thrilled to be doing what we were doing. Mostly, I’d speak to the designer on the phone or we’d see each other and I’d ask what the new « mood » was going to be, with Mugler for example it was Africana, Tribal, Sauvage,…also lost in the jungle kind of thing. Iman was going to be wearing my pieces. It was called the “To Be Savage is to Live” collection and I did the graphics for it and designed the pieces for this look Mugler explained to me. At that time Dauphine de Jerphanion, his muse and model and my friend had lots of dinners together and she and I would talk about the new mood. I always had a casual, intimate relationship in some form or another with the designer and it was through these kind of chats and directives that I’d get inspired. I saw some sketches and some fabrics and so with all that in mind I set about to do the actual pieces. As this theme was already dear to me it was rather easy and great fun.
We did a coconut shell brassière for Iman and though they looked exactly as the real thing, they were moulded in resin and hand-carved after being taken from the mould. So, after the sketch period we’d do prototypes. We did many, many from which we’d show to the house of haute couture and they’d mix and match them to the clothes, some times even just seconds before the model stepped onto the catwalk. Iman, in her sand-coloured raphia type fabric suit in the classic Mugler nipped waist style, she wore the jewels, the brassière and all and carried in her arms a live monkey !
I worked with many haute couture fashion houses for example there was Emanuel Ungaro, Hanae Mori, Bernard Perris, Diane Von Fürstenberg, Francesco Smalto, Tan Guidicelli and it was always very casual, very friendly and if I dare say, chic.. I was asked to do jewels for Mme. Grès and for Jacques Fath when they were trying to open again under the famous names. Though we did prototypes, at the last minute I decided not to do it for Fath and for Grès, her house was forcibly bought out from under her by people who ultimately ruined her business forever. She never opened again and the jewels remained some with her and some with us. She stopped making haute couture and the end was rather sad for this amazing artist and soulful person. I was personally devastated for her and extremely sad. I did do the very last photos of her very last shows, including the very final one. I did photos of her and Mme Claude Pompidou. I was also asked by Boucheron and Tiffany to do jewels but I did not wish to at that time though it intrigued me as I had such admiration for those haute joaillerie houses. I did so many things for so many different designers but all had that very parisian way that fellow designers collaborated. It was very Old School and it exists in a much smaller degree now.
Once the jewels were in the hands of the designers and after the haute couture shows, they then put them in their boutiques or they could be ordered especially for clients. I was always flexible about re-doing a design because it usually meant I could do a slightly new version of it, change the stones of colors of the paint. If Madame X ordered her gown in red instead of pink she saw in the show, she may want the jewel that went with that dress in a red tone, or maybe contrasted with white or violet. It was quite a wonderful thing to do as it had it’s challenges and surprises.
I loved seeing them on other designers clothes because it was for me a wonderful new way to express myself and a great learning curve. By this stage in my life, I felt very lucky and privileged because FINALLY people were understanding the work in a more intense and more naturalistic way. It was no longer just for the avant-garde and the underground and the alternative, art-y minded ladies and gentleman. Regular Parisian women (and men, mostly Princes, music and movie stars) were wearing the jewels. I had become exactly what I dreamed of being, part of the Old School haute couture art in Paris, France. I had achieved my most treasured dream and goal.
17. In an interview with the Dallas Times Herald in the 1980s you stated-
BB* : “I really resent being called an artist. I’m not. My jewelry is fashion. It’s meant to be worn and admired and thrown away. People don’t come home from a party and hang my earrings on the wall. At least I hope they don’t” – BillyBoy*.
I find that to be a good statement about fashion jewelry in general. Do you still feel this way about jewelry and art and what would you add to this statement after all these years if anything?
I actually was being flippant though there is still truth in it. By that stage of my life, people right, left and center were telling me that my work was art work more than anything else, and I knew many collectors who beautifully mounted my jewels on velvet in frames. The stores asked me to try to make more wearable things, which though they had no bad intentions or desire to offend me, I was appalled at the idea of watering down my stuff. Many people did not understand what I was about though they thought they could guide me to become more of a businessman, and a commercial costume jewelry designer. This annoyed me to no end back then but now I see that it was all with good intentions. It was unthinkable for me to do things just for doing things to sell as I had been doing always a very purist vision of mine and how I saw jewelry. I was so lazy and oblivious when it came to making a business. I hated everything to do with the money side and it was both a quality and a huge flaw. There are consequences for being that flippant and versatile about careers and money-making. I did it but dragged my feet. Lala still reminds me and laughs at how I used to fall asleep at business meetings at the attorney who handled the contracts. It was just not something most people understood. When I said this, I was trying to be camp and ironic. Maybe it seems like I was a bit annoying. I have long changed my ways as being annoying is not a quality to pursue.
I think that it is a good idea the world has evolved in which craftsmen and women are regarded more as artists and artisans than just jewelry suppliers and craftsmen. For instance ,a great example would be the artist and poétesse Elsa Triolet, who made some of the earliest Schiaparelli, Chanel and Poiret jewelry (and who wrote her ideas on the matter in her book written in 1931 but only published in the early 70s). She regarded her work as only a fast, easy means to fund her trip to Communist Russia in 1930. She made jewelry for all these different couturiers with her lover Surrealist artist and author Louis Aragon in the role of the salesman. When we see them now, (I saw them in the 1970s when they were given to the city of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray) there is no question at all and beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are genuine works of art. I have to point out though that that old quote of mine is definitely true for a lot of costume jewelry still. Not all, in fact, rather relatively few, are really works of art. Most are still simply nice accessories to wear and that’s all.
18. Your jewelry was not for the faint of heart, really statement pieces. Can you speak to why or the central elements of your aesthetic?
They were works of art (I know I repeat this a lot, please excuse me. It is not only a main aspect of my philosophy about jewels but also about gri-gri and humanity) and I cannot honestly say I thought about who would buy it or just even wear it. Things that were playing a practical or applied role in the creation of my pieces, were pretty much ignored. Making the pieces, notably the ones I made from sketch to building with my own hands, had that one objective only-art. I made them, and still make them for myself and to express myself.
19. I feel like your jewelry in many ways is a product of the era it was produced not just a nod to vintage, it was especially relevant to the 1980s style? Would you agree? what makes your pieces BillyBoy*?
BB* : Well, the truth is simple. I think I became a big influence on costume jewelry despite of myself. It was not my goal to do so, not exactly the kind of fame I achieved. I wanted to be understood and I wanted to do something really new which I think I did achieve. The times were really different back then. There was only television, radio and paper press. If you were seen a lot in these mediums, everyone saw it.
Since I had a very mediatic career at a very young age, I was a strong presence in this field. The press I received was worldwide and so many famous, influential people of the times wore them that from that came a certain look for the decade, the big, chunky 1980s jewels came from all that exposure.
I can avow that it certainly was not inspired by anything particularly 1980s,…my main influence was Schiaparelli, Surrealism and art work made by artists from the long gone past. I think anyone knowledgable about costume jewelry can spot one of my pieces a mile away. It has a very distinctive style which nobody really knew how to truly imitate though many tried. I think many of the pieces you can see what I refer to such as a specific artist or period of history. What makes it “BillyBoy” most likely besides the highly recognizable look, was my philosophy which to this day is still pretty unusual, if not singularly unique. Nobody does artwork these days without thinking about the branding and selling of it. Money pretty much is the zeitgeist of today. I find it sad and glad I am not starting my career now.
20. What era besides the 1960s has had an influence on your jewelry design? Also why did the 60s have such power in terms of your aesthetic choices?
BB* : I had just finished writing a book for Crown about growing up in the 1960s and learning about America, France and England, all simultaneously. Fortunately, I prevented the book from being published because I realized I was too young to write about my life up until that point, my mid-20s. So, I was very inspired by that book and all those memories. Funnily enough, some of it will be in the book following the up-coming book with the bonus of being expressed by (I think) a much more mature man with a distance and understanding of my first years in this world than I had when I wrote them originally. In the first drafts of that book, I was afraid to speak about the negative aspects of my life, the tragedies and the failures. I just wanted to be the BillyBoy* of that time, which was larger than life happy. This was just a character I played to avoid my natural melancholia. The sixties stuff was so useful to me as that Pop, very colorful, wacky and zany era expressed a jubilance which matched my external personality I felt was right for me and the time. Fortunately, I think I’ve evolved. If only just a bit.
21. What were the names of some of your jewelry collections- for example-Jeanne d’Arc 1986? Which were your favorites?
BB* : Happy Germs from Outer Space was a favorite as was the collection inspired by Christophe de Menil’s Oceanic art I mentioned earlier. I can’t say I have favorites as they are all my children in a way,…but sometimes I look at old pieces and still like them and laugh. That’s a good sign for me. If I can still laugh about a piece….
22. Are you still designing any jewelry or are you focused on your work with Lala and the Mdvanii projects such as your Manifesto of Mdvaniiisms? Where is jewelry still available if so?
BB* : Oh yes, I never stopped. I established a private clientèle, and we do jewelry regularly. I’d say half are for clients and the other half is often for myself to see some ideas through to the finalised piece. I love doing that. The way it works is I start a piece and we’ll say,… “Oh, this is a piece I can see so and so wearing”. So we finish the piece and offer if for sale to the client. Usually they buy it. If not it’s fine, we show it in shows later on. It’s never a waste to do a jewel. Sometimes a client calls and asks to see the new pieces or asks for something let’s say, blue or red (which for me is a bit crazy, but fun nonetheless) …I just get cracking and we both jump into a red or blue piece and we have no idea what will come out but we work on it until something does pop out. We don’t stop until we are happy and think it’s finished.
Up until recently it was only available in Japan through my gallerist Sumiko Watanabe who has represented our work for over 34 years. Sumiko has ceased doing business as she is retired but she has not totally stopped. She represented only us exclusively for all these years. Our success was truly huge in Japan. It’s been a glorious relationship, friendship and business endeavor. She is one of the truly few people I can say truly gets me, gets us and gets the work! We have shows here in Switzerland regularly and it’s in galleries or our atelier and sometimes in a suite in one of the five star hotels. We do it when the muse inspires us to as it’s a lot of work and preparation. We currently are doing a new collection which I am very excited about and if anyone is interested in any of my work they can easily contact Lala through www.mdvanii.ch or any of my social media.
23. Was there a difference creating jewelry sold in stores versus the haute couture creations for private clients?
BB* : Well, yes there was only in the fact that the luxury shop pieces were often made in metals and with hand-made stones….and though the shape maybe the same, the stones made them all different. There are hand-made but not as elaborated and big as the ones made exclusively for a designer or a client. These pieces take many times more time to finish. We name them, create special boxes or stands for them, while they are resting from being worn.
24. As a jewelry historian I am fascinated by these details and am wondering will we ever get a jewelry memoir by BillyBoy*?
BB* : Aw, that’s sweet. For my collection of haute couture jewels, notably Schiaparelli, there are many, many stories, anecdotes and info most people perhaps do not know in the new book, Frocking Life, In Search of Elsa Schiaparelli coming out with Rizzoli. It’s up on Amazon for pre-order now. Afterwards, we are planning a series of full-page picture books for the various collections of jewels and cloths and other things, like dolls and design. I am really looking forward to showing people the width and depth of Schiaparelli’s jewelry as it’s very, very diversified. So many artists did them, from the 1920s until the fifties and then of course after until the late 70s when the Rhode Island manufacturer completely stopped the creation of pieces signed by her. The artisans and then the American designers for her license there all had their own hallmark and identifable materials, forms and ideas that as an ensemble it’s astounding to see. I think it’s very important to see them all together to get the full-on œuvre of Schiap. I consider the ensemble of all that was done by Schiaparelli, like any fine artist is an œuvre and not just fashions from a haute couture designer. After all these decades I still am enthralled, and amused and astounded by her work. In fact I love my collection and enjoy touching the pieces, looking at them and studying them. My darling husband just designed the renovation of a whole 1902 mansion geared to housing and dealing with my collection. It’s thrilling for me.
One of the greatest aspects of having collected so long has been the loans and collaborations I have done with the designers when they needed pieces for museum shows. It is these many experiences which makes the whole collecting make sense and validate the process of studying history. I lent to so many houses and books. Having been close to the House of YSL, I was so happy when Stephen de Pietri, one of my close friends who happened to be the first archivist for Monsieur Saint Laurent would call me up and ask to use things from my collection. I think I participated in every YSL show from the first one until the last ones in the 1990s, after that I was in Switzerland and I slowed down loans as it’s so much work. Mr Pierre Bergé had always been so nice to me, it was he who initially asked me to loan things and I sort of think that because I made the house so aware of the need to create their own archives, I may have inspired their amazing museum they finally created. Stephen was hired to start this work right after the first show at the Met in New York. I also had wonderful friendships which people like Mme Gripoix, Dali, Jacques Griffe. I was pretty close to him. He lived in Mme Vionnet’s house and visiting him was like entering a timewarp filled with so much history. I remember using the bathroom and thinking, this is where Mme Vionnet bathed and you know…did human things. It was in the truest sense of the word, it was a word I never use, awesome! I went on vacation to Pallama de Majorca with Erté in 1979. Erté helped me learn so much about so many things. He did nearly naked photos of me on the beach at night resembling his famous alphabet made from the human form. People like Mme. Gripoix gave me hundreds of old prototypes for clasps, earrings, belts etc. I have sacks full of them still. They need to be mounted and shown for what they are, a pet project for my new house.
As for my work you’ll get a little glimpse in the chapter about Surreal Couture and Surreal Bijoux in the up-coming book. Readers will get a glimpse into the world of my own and the work with Lala. For the full BillyBoy* jewelry story he is planning a larger book about our whole haute couture history together. He is very good for the minutia something I really am into, though he is also able to be less emotional and even sometimes more objective than I.
25. Do you hold a significant archive of your original pieces from the 1970s-90s or images? I see some on (link to your site)….
BB* : Yes we do. It’s almost complete in the sense we have at least one of everything. The unique one-of-a-kind pieces I have the sketches and photos. Things which were moulded we have the plaster prototypes and the moulds.
1.Let us turn to your jewelry collection/archive. You have many pieces of clothing and accessories worn by women like Marilyn Monroe, Josephine Baker, the Duchess of Windsor, Arletty, Gloria Vanderbilt, Diana Vreeland, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Gala Dali, many iconic Hollywood actresses from Liz Taylor, Louise Brooks, Ann Miller and so many more. What are examples some of your favorite accessories/jewelry from your collection and why?
Good question. I have many I like. I have quite a few things I am very attached to. The costume jewelry Marlene Dietrich and Arletty gave me are amongst my favorites. The baby frog cufflinks by Jean Schlumberger for Schiaparelli Diana gave me I get kind of teary-eyed when I think of them. The Schiap pieces from my friend Comte Henri de Beaumont designed by his famous uncle Comte Etienne de Beaumont are very striking as are the Triolet jewels, all from friends, some famous, some not. The Schiaparelli pieces Gala and Salvador Dali gave me also are prized. One is a mermaid in gilded resin-type material. Another is a bird designed by Dali executed by Gripoix. I love my polychromed Zodiac necklace by Schiaparelli and the leg ex-voto necklace by Schiap. The seaweed necklace designed by Serge Matta and made by Coppolo e Toppo and modeled by Bettina Graziani in a Henri Clarke photo is very neat. I love all the connections, especially when I knew the people involved. The seaweed necklace once belonged to the photographer John French’s wife. One bronze haute couture necklace by Schiaparelli is truly a work of art. It is stylized human figures dancing. I am very very powerfully attracted to the Schiaparelli haute couture pieces. The Poiret pieces also are truly important to me sentimentally. It’d be difficult to pin down just a few pieces because each one carries a story. My collection was amassed through my life experiences so it is not as if I bought them all at an auction. They remind me of people I loved and who loved me back. Most are gone now so I am very sentimental about them. They are charged with a profound metaphysical synergy for me. They mostly are like Wiccan talismans to me, not banal purchases or cold acquisitions. When I finish my book on them, you will understand why.
2.What is the craziest or luckiest way you’ve ever found a significant vintage fashion accessory?
BB* : My first Schiaparelli hat made me go into a Quantum multiverse. So I think it must be that hat. I elaborate on it in my up-coming book.
3. Favorite accessories designers?
BB* : The pre-war French artisans. There are many. Jean Schlumberger and Mme Gripoix because I knew them so well, Roger Vivier and Kenneth Lane for a similar reason. I have been so lucky and have known so many talented people who are now iconic I could not really chose.
4. What movie would you live in purely for the accessories or wardrobe?
BB* : I have to mention a few as they probably reflect all my true loves. « Last Year in Marienbad » by Alain Resnais and « Broadway Melody » (by M.G.M, the 1929 or /and the 1936 version with Eleanor Powell), and « Prix de Beauté » with Louise Brooks. « Madame Satan » wouldn’t be bad either. There are several films with Schiaparelli, so I suppose they’d be a priority if I get only one hit at this thing. I guess the way I dress is home on a usual basis is close to « L’inhumaine » by Marcel L’Herbier in 1924. There is Barbarella with Jane Fonda and a whole wardrobe of Paco Rabanne clothes and accessories like her bracelet-like thing called a « Tongue Box » . That was a film I really have liked now since decades.
5. What do you look for in a piece of jewelry for your collection?
BB* : Well, I don’t look for anything other than beauty and something interesting about it. I am very faithful to the ones I already collect like Jean Clément and François Hugo and Roger Jean-Pierre. It’s rare that I go into a new branch of the subject though it does happen once in a while. I like so many different things that it’d be hard to pinpoint but as my obsession with Schiaparelli haute couture rages still in my blood, I love getting a piece and then finding it in my endless amount of documentation. That’s still is quite a kick!
6. What advice to your have for those just starting their collections?
BB* : Oh dear, well see the answer below, as I say, collect what you love, stay within your budget or means, don’t collect for investment purposes. I have some rules of thumb, so if you’d like to know they are, voila ;
Many, many of the books on costume and designer jewelry have many historic and factual errors. It’s a pity because these errors are sandwiched in between correctly stated facts so it’s hard to sort through. My friend Norman Mailer called these things “factoids”. When he coined the word, he was referring to Marilyn Monroe and the untrue myths about her. It’s the same with jewelry. A great deal of incorrect information has been repeated so often in books, articles and even oral history that people come to think of them as facts. One of the most historically accurate and the most exigent is Deanna Farneti Cera. She is the highest level of historic research. There are one or two others I could mention but as I don’t known them other than a passing acquaintanceship, I prefer not to say. Deanna and I correspond and I find her as picky as I am and I like that. In my opinion, it is a quality. She wants the truth and not the myth, like myself. We all can make mistakes and that’s fine as long as you correct it when you can.
The collectors I admire most are the most demanding in terms of ethics, scruples and how to do the right thing. I fully recognise that most dealers need to make a living and collectors occasionally may need to de-acquisition. It’s normal and fine. What needs to be present to impress me are the ethics of the exchange. I fortunately do have a few friendships with dealers like this but I also have witnessed first hand really undercut, cut-throat, frighteningly mercenary dealers and they are to be avoided like the plague. I have pet peeves too such as :
There is no such thing as a “Demi Parure”, people should not use this truly out-of-date franglais.
Then there is the issue of the incorrect use of the name Gripoix in rapport with glass. Only Gripoix can make Gripoix jewels as they invented a special technique using emaille, (which is vitreous enamel) and not technically glass. They use lampwork which is the heating of vitreous enamel or glass or lead crystal rods. Plus, not all Gripoix pieces are for Chanel. I am a bit tired of seeing pieces advertised for sale as such. Gripoix worked with everyone including myself.
Also, the 1970s phrase in on-line auctions of “a book piece”, is cringe-worthy and notably a rather a word for the hoi polloi. Beside’s it being démodé since the use of the often erroneous and cheap guide books for collectors is no longer a big thing since the use of the internet. I wish and believe it should just go away by now!
These are only three little points, I have many others. Bear in mind I am laughing when I say this because though I am a bit maniac about history and facts, in the end people can do whatever they want. I guess the argo and endless factoids now that they are used so much communicate with others of like mind something specific. For that generation I suppose it’s a familiar argo. I am not really entitled to butt in but I don’t really appreciate it.
I also hear this all the time totally wrong information about jewels I personally have a contrary information about. When I smell someone freaking out because I may have said something like; no, Chanel did not make jewels in the 1910 or no, Schiaparelli did not do haute couture in the 1960s, I try to stay out of it. The nonsense I have read about Schiaparelli, Chanel, Dior and Balenciaga could fill a book unto itself. Sadly, in life, there are the crème de la crème of people who are knowledgeable and wise and logical about collecting and there is a whole strata of pseudo experts.
In fact, I myself want to learn and I do on almost a daily basis, I want people to teach me the things they know as fact. I am Old School and think we all can learn from one and other, but now costume jewelry is a big deal, things sell for much more than when I started and the stakes are much higher, so I try to be informative, do my work as an expert, as I am really lucky and have worked with the very best…and other than that, be discreet as possible. I prefer to spend a day with a student from a school showing them the rarest costume jewels by iconic designers than doing something more public and showy.
We did enjoy speaking about costume jewels both historic and our own to people not in the milieu and I find that still always refreshing. I’ve lectured at “haute écoles” such Pierre Bergé’s school called the I.F.M (Institute Française de la Mode) and The Paris American Academy in Paris and The Haute Ecole d’Art et Design in Geneva. Lala and I did a show at the British Embassy in Moscow right at the time of Perestroika, (invited by Mrs Thatcher and Sir and Lady Cartledge) about Surrealism and Schiaparelli Jewelry and I did lectures to all of the ambassadors and their wives about my own work. It actually, spontaneously turned into a very luxurious version of a Tupperware party for my jewels as all the woman insisted to buy the display of our work. Under a Fragonard painting on the ceiling we saw nearly all the diplomat’s of the world’s spouses trying on Surreal Bijoux earrings shaped liked cookies with faces and broochs shaped like turnips and dragons. Radishes, turnips, carrots etc and food motifs in general are a direct inspiration from Paul Poiret’s Atelier Martine. I knew his children and saw and was gifted pure marvels for so many years how could they not inspire me? I love talking about that because it was aside from being highly privileged and informative about his work, it was such a lesson in life.
So, if you are just starting, seek out the people known for their exigence. Find the most difficult and the most demanding of experts. I know it sounds abstract and it is difficult admittedly, but seek out the highest level of expert and if possible the first source people. Try to collect things where you can meet the creators or the original sources. By the way, I think I have put to final rest some myths about Schiaparelli jewelry, notably those about my Cocteau eye brooch, the telephone dial compact and a few other things. I am impatient to have people finally read the facts about these pieces.
ALWAYS do research and look at period documents. Build your own private library whether it be in your mind (if you have a fabulous memory) or in a library on a shelf and always refer to it. Even if you have only 50 bucks a month to spend, spend it on pieces you love and start reading about them in first source, period documents. It is very fulfilling and you can never go wrong. Read the internet, print out articles or information which you need and put them in a ring binder. Build your own info base. Try to stick to information which is documented. Just because so-and-so in a book said something, it does not necessarily mean it is true.
7. What jewelry or accessories brands created in the last 30 years to now do you feel maybe worth collecting?
BB* : That’s not an easy question because all jewelry has some significance, so it’d depend on why someone collects. Bracelets made from gumball machine plastic charms of the 1960s to Van Clef et Arpels all interest me. I think many people are like this in the field of costume jewelry. It’s all interesting. My personal point of view though is NEVER collect for investment or monetary reasons, it’s just a very bad idea. It’s like gambling and I know this from some members of my adopted family, you can win once in a while, even big time, but in the end, all gamblers lose. Spend as much as you want or can and enjoy it but avoid if possible, for the value.
If you collect, and this would be my case, for the pure beauty or to wear it, you will never go wrong. There is so much today, so many, many designers in so many genres it’s not possible to suggest what to collect. Collect what you love and as I said, always collect within your budget. It’s a very emotional kind of thing jewelry and it’s very easy to get out of control and over spend. I have seen friends of mine really have problems because of this, not only in collecting jewelry, but collecting in general. A few times I really went berserk but I had to really make up for it. That was when I was young and obsessed. Now, I am middle-aged and obsessed so I, like a great Bleuette doll collector in Paris, Mme. Gautrot said to me many years ago, Je suis philosphe! which means, I am philosophical. She said this when I asked her if she felt she was satisfied in collecting and do the elusive pieces keep her up at night. What it means is, it’s not important if she got them at that stage in her life, she meant that she understood that we cannot have it all. Lord bless her, she was so hilarious and so wise.
8. How many pieces of jewelry do you own?
Many, many thousands by now. In the late 1990s decided I could I no longer catalogue them, it was exhausting and my assistants and secretaries were worn out from it all. I may re-start cataloguing again but this time by myself or with one assistant but there are many thousands of pieces. My husband and I just bought a new house. Well, it’s more than a house. It’s extraordinarily big in a picture postcard setting in the Swiss mountains and my husband Lala has meticulously designed whole floors just for the collection with alarm systems, computer banks, storage and lighting. It’s the size of a small museum now. I want to spend my life now and as much as possible from this time forward simply enjoying it. It has always been the thing that made me make decisions as to moving house and dealing with it could be full time work and honestly, it is rather exhausting. Every time I wanted to move, or even travel…it was Okay, how do we move the collection? or Who will babysit the collection? I have things pristinely packed up that I have not looked at in decades. This is because storage at home is literally up the ceiling and heavy and hard to move and in professional storage where it is in endless crates, cartons, trunks and boxes. Now, all the storage places shall be emptied, crates and boxes unpacked and all put in this new place. I can finally poser mes valises as you can say in French.
In 2016, I confirmed that I will be doing a Youtube series on collecting haute couture, recognizing and preserving it along with costume jewels. This show will get into the nitty-gritty of the vocation and what will be nice, to give it a personal slant, I will be telling anecdotes and experiences growing up surrounded around the most iconic French haute couturiers and all the artisans and designers I knew personally. I am looking forward to it. The show is called Spinach is Fashion.
9. Favorite era for jewelry?
BB* : I love and collect all genres and types and periods of jewelry. From ancient jewels, to real jewels and costume. I have a particular love of the haute couture and alta moda jewels of the 20th-century of course, but I’ve worn Etruscan necklaces with plastic beads by Courréges, so eras are not a focal point for me.
10. Who were some of your most famous clients ?
BB* : Bettina Bergery and Bettina Graziani, of course, Lauren Hutton, Arielle Dombasle, Marisa Berenson, Maria Shriver, Pat Lawford, Diane Von Furstenberg, Jackie Onassis, Arletty, Liz Taylor, Lauren Bacall, Diana Vreeland, Prince Mubarak-El-Sabat and his entire entourage including his body guards, Norris Church Mailer (Norman Mailer’s wife) Princess Gloria Turn and Taxis, Princesse Dominique Constantinovich de Montenegro, Princesse Marie–Pia de Savoie, Prince Serge de Yugoslavie, Mohammad VI of Morocco, Prince Antoine de Lobkowicz, Sid Vicious, Françoise Sagan, Marguerite Duras, Anne Rice, Andy Warhol and pretty much anyone with him at times he visited and bought jewelry, Fred Hughes (same for Fred, he brought droves of people to Rue de la Paix), Ray Charles and one of his wives named Arlette, Boy George, Slash (from Guns N’ Roses), Michael Jackson, Madonna, The Communards, Ian Dury of Ian and the Blockheads, Isabella Rosselini, Leigh Bowery, Leonor Fini, Marie-Hélène de Rothchild, Henry Geldzahler (Commissioner of Art to New York City in the 70s). Gay icons like Edmund White, Brion Gysin and even a crazy piece I did as a teen was owned by and I think occasionally worn by Truman Capote. That’s a long story!
11. Favorite jewelry brands? Favorite producers of couture jewelry?
BB* : I cannot say I have any. I like what I like and it’s a broad spectrum. Naturally, many people who may possibly know me, would know my obsession with Schiaparelli haute couture jewels, but things of now, I don’t think I have any favorites. I can sit and look at anything made as jewelry now and always walk away happier and with a teeny bit more knowledge of the subject. It’s all good. How lucky we are to be able to do what we do in the field of costume jewelry.
Follow BillyBoy* on instagram: @mdvaniiism
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