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Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo was so intrigued when a friend pinned a Trifari costume-jewellery brooch on her jacket in the 1980s that she immediately delved into the subject. “I was really fascinated by these elegant designs and the contrast of the humble materials,” Mrs Sandretto Re Rebaudengo says.
She then traced the development of costume jewellery in the United States from the 1920s, when Coco Chanel popularised the concept.
Milestones in her study included the Great Depression, costume jewellery’s adoption by Hollywood and haute couture, and how designers coped with a ban on the use of certain materials during the second world war.
Not only has Mrs Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, 56, amassed 1,000 pieces of American costume jewellery (the “cultural heritage of a difficult time” which forced the use of cheap materials), but she has also collected contemporary art. In 1995, she established the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, a non-profit art institution, then opened its first venue in a family palazzo in Guarene d’Alba, south-east of Turin, in 1997 and a second venue in Turin itself in 2002.
“In collecting jewellery I try to use the same rules that I apply to my contemporary art collection,” says Mrs Sandretto Re Rebaudengo. “But, at the end, I let my instinct make the final choice.”
Mrs Sandretto Re Rebaudengo wears pieces from her collection every day and usually chooses her jewellery before picking clothes to match, using her monochromatic dresses as her “canvas” for the jewels.
She wore her blue-and-green de Lillo necklace with a black dress for the opening night of a 2012 exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in London of part of her art collection. The piece, which she bought in 1993, is made of gilded metal, green glass “stones” and plastic “stones” that resemble lapis lazuli.
Buddha in dark forest bracelet (1988)
“Wendy Gell began creating this jewellery during the 1970s and she really devoted herself to the creation of original pieces,” says Mrs Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, who admires the designer’s use of recycled items. The 20cm-high bracelet features materials including wood, miniature plastic figures, semi-precious stones, glass, brass and shells. “Everyone pays attention because it’s full of objects, of life,” she says.
Brooch with octopus (1940s)
After spending years searching for Boucher’s rhodium and rhinestone octopus brooch, Mrs Sandretto Re Rebaudengo finally received an offer of one from a collector. “But when I wrote to them again they told me they didn’t have it any more because it had been sold,” she says. “I was really disappointed.”
But when she opened her 50th birthday present from her husband, Agostino Re Rebaudengo, and her younger son, Emilio, she was taken aback. “I opened my gift and there was my octopus,” she says. “It was a really great surprise and so, for me, it’s also important because it means the love of my family.”
Necklace with two flowers (2004)
“In a certain way you can understand my mood through my costume jewellery, from the objects that I wear,” says Mrs Sandretto Re Rebaudengo. She also accessorises according to the season: Christmas tree brooches, sent to American service personnel fighting in the Korean war, in December; palm trees in summer. In spring, she favours fruit or flowers.
Moini’s flower necklace, which she bought from his New York shop to wear to the Italian literary prize Premio Campiello’s ceremony in 2004, is one of the youngest pieces in her collection. It is actually two pieces in one: the big flowers detach to form a brooch.
“It’s a piece of art because at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2006 some of these objects were exhibited in an exhibition [of fashion icon Iris Apfel’s collection],” she says. “The same at the Louvre: there are a few pieces of his in their permanent collection.”
Unsigned necklace (1960s, main picture)
Attributed to Kenneth Jay Lane
The collector bought this necklace, consisting of metal, plastic imitation drop coral and rhinestones, for a dinner marking the opening of the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo’s Turin venue in 2002. “For me it’s an important object because it was an important moment in my life,” she says.
She appreciates Lane’s place in costume jewellery history: he produced copies of jewellery for famous women including Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and made pieces available to everyone from “princesses to students”.
“What is very interesting to me is this opportunity that every woman in the world can wear one of these beautiful pieces of art, of jewellery,” she says.
The exhibition Costume Jewelry — Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo’s Collection is at Palazzo Mazzetti in Asti, Italy, from April 16 to October 30