Elsa Peretti was born into a wealthy family in Florence, Italy, in 1940, the youngest daughter of Ferdinando Peretti, who owned a sizeable Italian oil company. Ever the independent free spirit, at the age of 21, she struck out on her own, despite her father's threat to cut off her financial support.
Educated in Rome and Switzerland, Peretti began her working life as an Italian language teacher and ski instructor. In 1963, she relocated to Milan, where she studied interior design and worked for an architect.
The following year, she began modeling in Barcelona, Spain. Encouraged to move to New York City to continue her career, she told her boyfriend she was moving. Unhappy with her decision, he gave her a black eye. His actions did nothing to dampen her desire to move to the Big Apple and take a job with Wilhelmina Modeling Agency, which supplied talent to some of the most sophisticated clothing designers in New York.
I'll Take Manhattan
Peretti quickly became one of Roy Halston's favorite models. She and other top models, among them Anjelica Huston and Karen Bjornson, became part of an elite group, nicknamed the Halstonettes.
In 1969, Peretti began creating new jewelry styles for Manhattan fashion designers. Her initial creation was a small sterling silver bud vase, suspended from a leather strap, inspired by a piece she found at a flea market. (The original bottle necklace was worn by young Italian girls, who used it to carry gardenias so they wouldn't wilt in the girls' hands.) Peretti's bottle pendant, featuring a minimalist, clean look, was an instant hit. By 1971, she was designing jewelry for Halston as well as modeling for him.
Halston asked Peretti to design a bottle for a new fragrance he was launching. The curvaceous perfume bottle Peretti created was the perfect home for the eponymous Halston fragrance, destined to become the second-biggest selling fragrance of all time, after Chanel No. 5.
Meanwhile, her work in jewelry design continued to build. Bloomingdale's opened an exclusive Peretti boutique in 1972. Two years later, Peretti signed a contract with Tiffany & Co. to create a collection of sterling silver styles aimed at a younger clientele. The whimsical collection featured sensual lines and simple designs infused with Peretti's unique persona. From floating open heart pendants to contemporary cuff bracelets, her jewelry quickly acquired a loyal following.
Back to Spain
The mid- to late-1970s saw an increase in Peretti's participation in the party scene in New York. She and Halston were frequent habitués at Studio 54 until the pair had a falling out.
Her refuge from the frenzy of New York was a house she purchased and restored in the village of Sant Martí Vell in Catalonia, Spain. By the 1980s, Peretti spent much of her time there. As well as her own home, she went about restoring many of the historical buildings in the village. The site has an impressive history that includes a Roman settlement from the second century and a twelfth-century temple. Peretti has also supported the conservation of historical and photographic archives in the village.
"Style," Elsa Peretti says, "is to be simple."
Peretti has created over 30 collections for Tiffany, including the Bean, Open Heart, Mesh, Bone, and Zodiac motifs. Materials used in her designs include sterling silver, 18K gold, jade, turquoise, lacquer, and rattan. With inspiration drawn from her travels to Japan, China, and Europe, Peretti's work is sensual, sculptural, and distinct. While modern, Peretti's pieces somehow manage to preserve unique crafts of traditional jewelry making.
She approaches her nature-inspired themes with a scientist's intellect and an artist's eye. Always, she strives for the essence of her object of desire. A heart is not merely a heart; it embodies the love, the emotion — starfish frolic. Teardrops are symbols of joy, not sadness.
One of Peretti's more famous creations is "Diamonds by the Yard." The premier style for this collection featured stations of bezel-set round diamonds on a sterling silver or 18K gold chain. The idea was to introduce diamonds subtly, adding delicate sparkle to a simple chain and creating an animated effect.
Keeping it simple has never produced a more complex effect. Take Peretti's Bean suite, for example. A bean is just a bean unless you consider its symbolism as the beginning of life. Then the ordinary concept becomes extraordinary in its execution.
In 2012, Tiffany extended its partnership with Peretti for another 20 years; a sure indication the fine jeweler has an abiding belief in Peretti's ability to continue setting trends well into the future.
- 1971: American Fashion Critics City award
- 1982: Spirit of Achievement Award, Albert Einstein College
- 1986: Fashion Group Night of the Stars Award 1986
- 1996: Council of Fashion Designers of America's Accessories Designer of the Year
- The British Museum's 20th Century Collection includes 30 of Peretti's creations. The display, entitled "Continuity and Change," celebrates cross-cultural influences and techniques.
- Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indiana
- Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts
- Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas