“Every minute, every day, somewhere in the world, a woman finds herself drawn to the creations of Elsa Peretti.” ~ Tiffany & Co.
Elsa Peretti, the fashion model turned jewelry designer whose creations for Tiffany & Co. revolutionized women’s jewelry, expanded the role of diamonds to everyday accessories and elevated sterling silver to luxury status, died March 18 at her home in Sant Martí Vell, Spain. She was 80.
Vogue described Peretti as “arguably the most successful woman ever to work in the jewelry field.” The stunning uniqueness of her evocative designs—a never-before-seen organic aesthetic that’s sculptural, smooth and irresistably sensual—enchanted the world.
Peretti was born in 1940 in Florence, Italy, and educated in Switzerland and Rome, where she received an interior design degree. A striking woman, Peretti established herself as a fashion model in Barcelona. There, she studied the visceral architecture of Antoni Gaudí. She also sat for the Spanish surrealist Salvador Dalí and joined his artistic Barcelona couturier.
From there, Peretti went on to Japan where she met the extraordinary artisans who would play an important role in her work. In Hong Kong, Peretti admired and collected Asian art, ingenious for transforming symbols into dimensions, something that would later greatly influence her style.
The New York fashion scene of the 1960s inevitably drew Peretti in, and she began designing her own jewelry. In 1969, her “Bottle” design was shown alongside the collection of American fashion designer Giorgio di Sant’Angelo. The small, sterling silver bud vase worn as a pendant was an immediate success. The pendant was inspired by the stylish young women of Portofino, Italy, who would carry a single gardenia in their hands. Peretti wanted to find a way for the women to carry the fragrant flower and keep it alive, so she created the “open bottle” design of the pendant based on a small vase she found in a junk shop. Her Bottle pendants became instant style icons.
Peretti then met the renowned American fashion designer Halston, joining his entourage at New York City’s legendary nightclub Studio 54. Halston became her longtime friend and frequent collaborator, with Peretti modeling and designing for him and originating his now famous perfume bottles.
Halston then introduced Peretti to Tiffany & Co. The celebrated jewelry house, which hadn’t carried silver jewelry for 25 years, signed her in 1974 as a named jewelry designer. It marked the beginning of an unparallelled career of iconic jewelry collections coveted across the globe.
Snakes And Scorpions
One such collection features the “Snake” necklace, an articulated piece featuring a stylized version of the reptile. Peretti used the end piece of a rattlesnake tail given as a good luck charm for inspiration. Her will and the expertise of excellent craftsmen then brought the necklace to life. In true serpentine form, the necklace lies in a winding path around the neck, passing through the mouth of the snake, moving with the movements of the wearer.
The poisonous scorpions around Peretti’s home in Spain fascinated her as well. They gave life to the “Scorpion” necklace, a piece with claws that embrace the neck like a collar and a stinger that dangles at the décolletage.
The bean—in essence a seed, the origin of life—was a very meaningful symbol to Peretti, and the appeal of its natural shape remained a constant source of inspiration for her. Peretti’s “Bean” design was a perfect balance of form and surface. Variations on the theme came easy, as it can be seen at Tiffany in everything from pendants and purses to lighters and paperweights.
Elsa Peretti sterling silver “Bean” clutch.
In Jaipur, India, Peretti found the idea for her “Mesh” collection, gold or silver intricately woven into a fabric that would drape like silk and follow the body’s contours and movements. She collaborated with Samuel Beizer, chairman of the jewelry department at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) at the time, who unearthed the machinery and craftsman used to make antique mesh. The possibilities were endless for the metallic fabric, forming earrings, necklaces, scarves and bracelets—even a mesh bra.
A lingering memory of a flamenco dancer’s earring in candlelight inspired the sensational “Sevillana”collection, centered on an elliptical shape. Driven by her desire to work with only the most gifted craftspeople, Peretti went to Japan to find the artisan who still practiced an ancient 70-step laquering process. The result: Pieces that are bold and powerful, yet feminine and unpretentious.
Diamonds By The Yard
With an objective to design jewelry that’s highly accessible to women, Peretti placed a single bezel-set diamond on a gold chain, which Tiffany sold for $89 in 1976. She then added diamonds of different weights (with one carat being the largest) at different stations along the chain and playfully named the creation “Diamonds By The Yard.” With this look of intermittent sparkle, Peretti completely reconceived the idea of the diamond necklace, offering one that could be worn during the day, every day.
Perhaps Peretti’s most famous design for Tiffany is the “Open Heart,” reportedly inspired by the void within a Henry Moore sculpture. It features clean, simple lines and a sophisticated, curvilinear shape that celebrates the spirit of love yet is void of sentimentality, making it appropriate for any occasion.
The biggest challenge for Peretti when designing the piece was how to hang it from a chain. The head of Tiffany jewelry at the time suggested running the chain through it, which placed the heart askew. It also gave the heart a graceful movement when worn. The piece took the world by storm and became the best-selling Peretti collection.
There were other collections for Tiffany such as “Teardrops,” inspired by Peretti’s desire to express sorrow, but it was a human bone that fascinated her the most. As a child, she would frequent the ossuary of a 17th-century Capuchin church and steal them. Later, she designed her fascinating “Bone” collection of cuffs, designed to be worn on both wrists. They have an ergonomic quality that makes them one with the body.
In the early 1980s, Peretti’s collections for Tiffany expanded to include china, crystal and silver designs for the home, which were praised for their fluid shape and tactile quality. According to Tiffany, “they represent love for life, the warmth of a generous host and the idea that beauty and utility should always be as one. All told, Peretti merchandise sometimes represented 10 percent or more of Tiffany’s annual sales.
Over the years, the world has recognized Peretti with countless awards, among them the Coty American Fashion Critics’ Award for Jewelry, the Rhode Island School of Design President’s Fellow Award and the Council of Fashion Designers of America award for Accessory Designer of the Year.
In recognition of her remarkable career, Tiffany established the Elsa Peretti Professorship in Jewelry Design at the Fashion Institute of Technology, the first endowed professorship in the history of FIT. In 2001, the designer was given an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree from FIT.
Peretti’s designs are in several permanent collections worldwide, including those of the British Museum in London; The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City; the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston ; and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas.
Perettis is also the founder and president of The Nando and Elsa Peretti Foundation, dedicated to the memory of her father, which is committed to supporting the environment, social welfare, human rights and the preservation of arts and culture.
Peretti has said, “Jewelry is not fashion. It has to last, not be discarded as soon as something else comes along.” Nothing could be truer of her pieces. Beautiful, transformational and eternally modern, Peretti’s jewelry, like her legacy, will remain a constant inspiration for generations to come.
Photos courtesy of Tiffany & Co.