“The day Elsa Peretti became a part of Tiffany & Co. was the day we entered a new era in our history of design innovation.” M. Kowalski, former Chairman and CEO Tiffany & Co
From her very first jewellery design, a silver pendant shaped like a classical amphora which was inspired by an old vase through to her final collection for Tiffany & Co. Elsa Peretti designed and made jewellery that she wanted to wear herself. Endlessly inspired by the natural world and obsessed with creating pared back, tactile pieces, Vogue magazine described her jewellery as “carved, pure—irresistibly touchable—it has been called jewellery as sculpture, sculpture as jewellery, and the most sensuous jewellery in the world.”
Peretti was born in Florence Italy in May 1940 the second of two daughters. Her father had founded an oil company some years previously which flourished in the post war years making them one of Italy’s wealthiest families. She was schooled in Rome and Switzerland and went on to study interior design, however she found the restrictions of a traditional and conservative family increasingly challenging. She rebelled and left Italy for Barcelona to try her hand at modelling, this caused a huge rift with her parents who cut both contact and financial support. In 1968, after four years in Spain, Peretti moved to New York where she signed to the Wilhelmina Cooper modelling agency and soon began to mix with an eclectic crowd from the worlds of fashion, art and music. She modelled for designers such as Issey Miyake, Halston and Giorgio di Sant’Angelo and it was on the runway for the latter in 1969 that a piece of her jewellery made its first public appearance. The little silver vase worn on a leather thong around the neck caught people’s imagination “Everyone wanted that little flask!” she remembered.
Over the next few years she continued to design jewellery and in 1971 began creating pieces for Halston, to be worn with and to compliment his collections. She primarily used silver, elevating it to the status of a precious metal and shaking off its associations with folk and ethnic jewellery. Liza Minnelli recalled the Halston fitting she was attending when first introduced to Peretti’s pieces. “Elsa brought out all these things – the bone bracelet I remember best. Everything was so sensual, so sexy. I just loved it. It was different from anything I’d ever seen, and I’d seen a lot.” Later that year and on the strength of her collection for Halston, Peretti was awarded the Coty American Fashion Critics’ Award for Jewellery.
Alongside her modelling and fledgling jewellery career, the early 1970s saw Peretti become almost as renowned for her partying and social circle as for her work with nights out at clubs such as Studio 54, Le Jardin and Paradise Garage regularly fuelled by alcohol and cocaine. Her affair with the photographer Helmut Newton resulted in the now legendary photos of her dressed in a Bunny costume and leaning languorously on the balcony of her Manhattan apartment. In an interview many years later she recalled partying with the likes of Andy Warhol and Elizabeth Taylor (“My goodness, she could drink!). But however much she enjoyed that life (she later said her favourite part had been the dancing) a part of her knew it wasn’t sustainable and she regularly escaped to her beloved Spanish home in the rural village of Sant Martí Vell for some peace and quiet. She bought her first property in the village at the end of the 1960s and over the following decade acquired more and more buildings, renovating as she went as well as helping to restore the church and establish a village vineyard. She spent increasing amounts of time here until eventually it became her primary residence, it was her refuge, source of inspiration and the antithesis of both her privileged, luxury-filled upbringing and the intensity of her New York life – “Here I feel free” she said.
For jewellery lovers, it is her collaboration with the great American jeweller Tiffany & Co. for which Peretti will be best remembered. She once described it as a being like a happy marriage and given the longevity of the relationship the feeling was obviously mutual. She was introduced to the then CEO Walter Hoving by Halston in 1974 and was signed up immediately. Having sold the rights to his name the previous year, Halston was quick to advise Peretti not to make the same mistake, which she didn’t and she maintained that position always despite substantial offers to buy her name and the rights to her designs as recently as 2012.
The collections she created with Tiffany are iconic and include the Bean, Teardrop, Open Heart, Bone Cuff and of course Diamonds by the Yard or DBY as it is affectionately known. Created in silver and gold and only sometimes set with gems, her pieces are characterised by fluid forms, tactile shapes and a relaxed style that still feels modern. During the 1980s she branched into accessories and homeware and created collections in china, crystal and silver that were as much a pleasure to use as they were beautiful to look at. “Touch is important” she declared “I get lots of my inspiration from tactile things.”
She was awarded the Rhode Island School of Design President’s Fellow Award in 1981 and was named Accessory Designer of the Year in 1996 by the Council of Fashion Designers of America. In 2001 she was given an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree from the Fashion Institute of Technology and that same year, to celebrate their 25th anniversary, Tiffany set up the Elsa Peretti Professorship in Jewellery Design, the first of its kind at FIT.
Her designs for Tiffany are enduringly successful and she remains the highest revenue earning designer the firm has worked with eventually generating around 10% of the company’s entire turnover, worth hundreds of millions of dollars. In 2012 she signed a contract to work with them for an additional 20 years, earning herself an immediate payment of over $47 million and an increase in annual royalty payments.
The money added to the fortune she had inherited from her father after their last-minute reconciliation just months before his death. Feeling uneasy with the hundreds of millions of euros now at her disposal she set up a charitable foundation in her father’s name in 2000. The Nando Peretti Foundation supports a wide range of projects ranging from environmental and biodiversity conservation, social welfare, education, health care, scientific research and arts, culture or historical preservation. After her death aged 80 in March 2021, the foundation was renamed The Nando and Elsa Peretti Foundation. In an interview with Vogue magazine she once said “For me to be a good designer is the simplest thing in the world. But to be a good human being, that is going to be hard, I’d like to try though.”
Peretti will be most widely remembered for being a good designer but to her friends (who she was always generous with and supportive of) and to all those who benefit from her Foundation she will, more importantly, be remembered as a good human being.