Elsa Peretti: The Jewels of Humanity 1940 – 2021

Elsa Peretti “not only created a model for style and elegance that defined contemporary life, she changed forever the way people think about jewellery and incorporating fine taste in their lives.”
William R. Chaney, company chairman at Tiffany & Co.

18ct Gold ‘Diamonds
by the Yard’ Necklace, Elsa Peretti for Tiffany & Co.
Sold for $4,216

The Italian-born jewellery designer, Elsa Peretti, is widely recognized as one of the most important jewellers of our time.

Her creations are acknowledged for their rigour and design; she had a talent of reducing things to their most primal and simple forms. Her open heart motif, influenced by Alexander Calder’s mobiles, is lovingly treasured as a metaphor for a poem on what the heart contains. As Peretti once put it, “I love nature, but I try to change it a little bit, not copy it.” Inspired by the forms found in the natural world, including snakes, scorpions, beans, flowers and bones, her minimalist and easily recognisable designs informed by Modernism are highly sought-after. She ignored the boundaries between fine and costume jewellery, instead creating enduring and meaningful jewels in silver that the working woman could afford and enjoy.

As an acknowledgement of her achievements and in recognition of the inspirational nature of her life’s work, many of Elsa Peretti’s iconic designs feature in several permanent collections, 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.

Elsa Peretti was born in 1940 in Florence into a privileged Italian business family. She attended schools in Italy and Switzerland, ultimately studying interior design and working for an architect in Milan. At age 21 she had a falling out with her parents over her work and lifestyle choices resulting in a termination of all financial support. To make ends meet she moved to Barcelona to pursue a career in fashion modelling. Elsa soon became part of an artistic enclave that included surrealist artist Salvador Dalí before moving to New York in 1968. With her tall, elegant appearance, severe cropped hair and khaki-colored eyes, Elsa was an immediate hit as a runway model for designers including Issey Miyake, Charles James, Giorgio di Sant’ Angelo and especially Halston, who went by just one name.

She soon became part of the glamorous crowd at Studio 54, the storied Manhattan disco that attracted celebrities like Andy Warhol, Liza Minnelli, Bianca Jagger, Cher and Halston. With her husky voice, androgynous appearance, and trademark large sunglasses, she cut an imposing figure on the dance floor. She is portrayed in Warhol’s diaries as a fiery character who liked a party.

Perhaps the most famous photo of Ms. Peretti was not one from a modeling assignment but the 1975 morning-after shot by the celebrity photographer Helmut Newton, with whom she was romantically involved at the time. She stands on an apartment terrace, a cigarette dangling from her mouth, wearing a variation of the Playboy Bunny uniform — strapless, with long black gloves and a black mask.

The perfume bottle
Elsa Peretti designed for Halston in the 1970s.

Once she could comfortably pay the bills, Peretti turned her hand to her true passion, jewellery design. Initially she created pieces for herself, later venturing into accessory design for others including Giorgio di Sant’ Angelo and Halston, designing his highly acclaimed signature bulbous teardrop perfume bottle.

In 1974, Halston introduced her to Walter Hoving, the CEO of Tiffany & Co., leading to an enduring collaboration with Peretti as a Tiffany named designer. Her designs made the cover of a 1977 issue of Newsweek, titled “Jewelry’s New Dazzle.” By 1978, Peretti was well entrenched as Tiffany’s leading designer. Through the partnership with Tiffany, Elsa Peretti became a household name. Over decades, she went on to design more than 30 collections and generated about 10% of Tiffany’s turnover. In 2012, when she threatened to withdraw her name and ideas, Tiffany paid her US$47million and signed her up for another 20 years.

In later life, Peretti’s energy and wealth were firmly fixated on the work of her charitable foundation, the Nando and Elsa Peretti Foundation, which supports environmental and conservation projects, human and civil rights, education, and animal welfare.

HAMISH SHARMA / Head of Important Jewels

Banner Image: Elsa Peretti, New York, 1970. (Photo by PL Gould/Images /Getty Images)

May 2021