Fashion: The Count of many crystals

On St Nicholas's Day, Count Alexander von Beregshasy invited his friends to wear his jewels at the Ritz.
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Count Alexander von Beregshasy was wearing a replica of the Hope diamond, a full-length, three-tiered cape, a silk velvet ruffed shirt, a pair of black riding-breeches, black hussar boots with spurs - and two rings on each hand.

"I always wear my jewels," he said. So will we all, if he realises his dream. Women will don diamond tiaras, dazzling, bodice-smothering necklaces, stomachers, bracelets, brooches and chandelier ear-rings dripping with diamonds.

Replica diamonds, that is. The count makes and sells the world's biggest replica rocks including, most recently, the crown jewels of France, Austria and Russia, which he has been privileged to hold in his cotton-gloved hands. He did not dare to touch the Hope diamond in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington - because of its deadly reputation. He studied it from a distance of a few inches.

His shop, just opened, is a tiny cubicle, like a jewel box, in The Mall, the antique arcade in Islington, north London. It glitters with a 4ft- wide Austrian Maria Theresa crystal chandelier with 25 candle bulbs, surplus from Buckingham Palace, dangling Rococo angels, and a life-size gold angel holding a crown, suspended from a gold rose garland entwined with fairy lights.

He has made 16 life-size, lifelike glass fibre mannequins, including Marie Antoinette's lady-in-waiting, with a galleon hairstyle, which is in his shop. He calls them his "perfect people". In his window is a mannequin of Faye Dunaway, star of Michael Winner's film, The Wicked Lady, wearing a ruby-studded velvet gown by the haute couture period dressmaker Olivia Barnard-Firth - who makes the count's own outfits - and his ruby-and-diamond winter jewel collection. A sign above the mannequin says: "A wicked lady always gets what she wants for Christmas."

The Count surrounds himself with wicked ladies - well, playfully wicked ones at least - notably at the Ritz, where they gather at his dinner parties resplendent in long gowns and the complete parures he has made for them. The last such extravaganza celebrated St Nicholas's Day, on Sunday. "I want to bring some sparkle, glamour, opulence, decadence, to this dull city of ours," he says. "I'm not from this century, I'm from the 18th century, and this is my mission in this life. It's just not true that you can have too much of a good thing. My aim is to gild the lily.

"Just as Diana, Princess of Wales wanted to be Queen of Hearts, I want to be Queen of Diamonds. I want to make dreams come true."

His great-grandmother was a Hohenzollern; his grandmother designed costumes for the opera in Linz, Austria; and his mother, the Baroness von Beregshasy, guided him as a child through the splendours of the palaces and castles of central Europe.

"For as long as I can remember," he says, "I have been attracted to anything that glitters and sparkles."

The family title was a reward for being the only Austro-Hungarian family, apart from Count Dracula's, to take up arms against the Turks in the 15th century. The count wears his family's gold signet ring, dating back to 1700, which is engraved with a horseman raising a sword upon which a Turk's head is impaled, while the horse tramples the decapitated foe.

A word of warning: never say "jewellery" within his earshot. "Such a cheap and common word," he says. "You would never hear the Queen referring to the Crown Jewels as jewellery. They are jewels."

Even replica jewels have their pride, it seems, and even royalty has been proud to wear replica jewellery. Marie Antoinette, for instance, sometimes wore necklaces made from the finest cut crystal and backed with gold foil. Nobody could tell the difference - especially below those blazing, 100-candle chandeliers in the state rooms of the Palace of Versailles.

Count Alexander uses crystal of the same highest quality - Austrian mountain crystal that is ground to a paste, laced with lead then machine-cut, and hand-cut Russian zirconia - a diamond-like rock crystal that can be distinguished from the real thing only under laser light. The count backs the stones with 24-carat antique gold - he eschews modern gold because it apparently has a "vulgar glitter".

His tour de force is Marie Antoinette's necklace, made from 500 rose- cut Austrian crystals and comprising two pieces - a collar tied with a satin ribbon, and broad, sumptuous swags with tassels, suspended from the shoulders. He discovered an accurate design for it in a Paris flea- market. His replica was worn for the first time at the Ritz. (See main picture, above.)

The count's private clients include ageing members of the nobility who arrive at his shop carrying plastic supermarket bags, from which they gingerly extract 19th-century jewel boxes containing tiaras last worn at their weddings or the Queen's coronation. They have had to pay extra insurance in order to take them out of their bank vaults for a day, so that the count can measure them to make a replica.

"Jewels are meant to be worn," he says. "But what's the point of buying a tiara from Cartier if you are constantly afraid of being mugged or even killed for it?"

Always tell people that your jewels are not real, he advises - it's safer that way - and take care of them. Their natural enemies are perfume and hairspray, which cling like a yellow glue to the stones, attracting grime and causing them to disintegrate. Even real diamonds hate sticky cosmetic sprays. His advice: spray on the perfume, wait 10 minutes - then put on the jewels and step out into the bright lights.

Prices: from pounds 50 for a pair of Austrian crystal stud earrings, to pounds 1,350 for an Austrian crystal tiara or pounds 5,000 for a Russian zirconia necklace. Each jewel is signed and is in a limited edition of 100. They come in splendid boxes.

Count Alexander Beregshasy, 14 The Mall Antique Arcade, 359 Upper Street, Islington, London N1 (0171-354 0059). The nearest underground station is Angel

Count Alexander von Beregshasy

He is wearing The Count Alexander Diamond (a 713-carat cubic zirconia, set in white gold with platinum plating - the largest zirconia in the world, he says). `I want to bring out the peacock in every gentleman,' he says

Pandora Gorey - the Count's lady in waiting

Her jewels are from a new parure of fantasy jewels, made to Pandora's own design. `The idea is based on spiders crawling around on dew-drenched grass in the morning mist. I love it, I feel as if I am walking on air'

Karen Wright - theatrical costumier

Her jewels are from the Katherine The Great parure. She is wearing her own dress, which took a week to make. `I feel like Katherine the Great. This is my first year at this occasion although I have attended other soirees at Count Alexander's,' she says

Sandy - one of the Count's dearest friends

The earrings are part of a collection from Empress Josephine and the necklace is from the Countess of Paris collection. `You feel so good walking down the stairway and through the Ritz into the Marie Antoinette suite. It is true, I do feel like a princess'

Olivia Barnard-Firth - costume designer

Olivia is wearing the replica in jewels and clothing reputed to have been bought for Marie Antoinette just before she was beheaded. Consequently she never actually wore the crown. `Beauty is what tonight is all about. Beauty brings such joy and happiness into lives, everyone should try to be beautiful every day. I live in the country and own horses, ducks and chickens. Even when I muck out the chickens I am glamorous,' she says. Photographs: Suzy del Campo / Interviews: Amy Jones

Baroness Ilse von Beregshasy - the Count's mother

Her jewels are from the Ice Queen collection and consist of 214-carat zirconias and baroque pearls. The tiara is a copy of the Tsarina of Russia's made by Cartier in 1910. `I feel so proud of my son, he just wants to share the beauty of the jewels,' she says

Ursula Adam - historical dancer

The jewels are a replica of a parure in pink topaz and diamond that was worn by Katherine The Great. `Tonight I feel like an aristocrat. I am 18th century. We all like a little fantasy and this is the perfect occasion to indulge,' she says

Prince John Hepburn - an old friend of the Count's

The large brooch is a replica of the order of the garter. The smaller ruby brooch is a replica of the order of St John from Austria. The final piece is a replica from Katherine the Great. `To be able to wear and see these jewels is a magnificent honour,' he says