‘A woman of almost awesome chic’ — the dazzling Elsa Peretti
The fearless designer wowed 1970s New York with her brilliantly inventive jewellery — from the bone cuff to the bean pendant, the open heart necklace to the mesh scarf. Christie’s specialist Marie-Cécile Cisamolo pays tribute to a true original
In the late 1960s, Elsa Peretti (1940-2021) was one of the most successful models in New York, working with the provocative photographers Helmut Newton and Hiro. With her statuesque physique, severe cropped hair and khaki-coloured eyes, she stood out among the fresh-faced ingénues of Park Avenue.
‘She is a woman of almost awesome chic, looking as dazzling in a beat-up men’s fedora as she does in a Halston ball gown,’ wrote the fashion critic Bernadine Morris in the 1978 book The Fashion Makers.
However, for all the glamour and success modelling brought her, the ferociously independent Peretti had other ideas. ‘She was quoted as saying that modelling was just a job to pay the bills,’ says Marie-Cécile Cisamolo, a specialist in Christie’s Jewellery department.
‘But she was clearly very good at it — the photograph of her wearing bunny ears by her lover Helmut Newton is to die for. Her real passion, though, was design.’
Over the next decade, Peretti re-fashioned herself as one of the most successful and unorthodox jewellery designers of the 1970s. Inspired by forms found in the natural world — such as scorpions, flowers and bones — her clean, minimalist designs became highly sought-after.
‘She was a trailblazer,’ says Cisamolo, ‘a strong feminist who ignored the boundaries between fine and costume jewellery, creating pieces that the working woman could afford.’
Peretti, who died in March aged 80, was born in Florence in 1940. Her father was head of the large oil company Anonima Petroli Italiana, and her upbringing was divided between schooling in Rome and Switzerland, and skiing with the Italian aristocracy in Gstaad.
At 21, she declared her independence by writing to her father, ‘I am a major adult and free, and I decide to live a life.’ He took her at her word and cut her off financially: she left Rome for Barcelona, penniless.
Thanks to her angular beauty and striking physique, she attracted the attention of the Catalan avant-garde and became part of Salvador Dalí’s eclectic entourage. He introduced her to Surrealism, which was to have a decisive impact on her jewellery designs.
In 1968, her modelling career took her to New York. ‘She famously arrived in Manhattan with a black eye from her boyfriend, who didn’t want her to go,’ says Cisamolo.
She soon became close to a tight-knit circle of artists and stars, among them Andy Warhol, Bianca Jagger, Bob Colacello and Liza Minnelli, and later hung out at the celebrity hotspot Studio 54. 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.
Peretti was naturally drawn to artists, says Cisamolo: ‘She was very knowledgeable about modern art. It was one of the things that struck me about her designs when I first saw them. You can see the influence of Surrealism, Abstraction and Minimalism.’
In 1969, Peretti showcased her first items of jewellery alongside the collection of her friend, the Italian designer Giorgio di Sant’ Angelo (1933-1989). She created a little silver vase that hung around the neck on a string of leather. ‘It became an instant hit — everyone wanted one,’ says the specialist.
‘To be a named jewellery designer in the 1970s was rare, particularly if you were a woman. But Tiffany understood her appeal’ — specialist Marie-Cécile Cisamolo
However, it was her relationship with the American fashion designer Halston (1932-1990), the focus of a forthcoming Netflix drama featuring Ewan McGregor and Rebecca Dayan, that was to have the most profound impact on her career. ‘He was a great man,’ Peretti said in 1990. ‘I learned so much from him.’
‘Halston and Elsa made an incredible team,’ says Cisamolo. ‘They were instantly attracted to one another. He loved her aristocratic background and she was attracted to his New World mentality. I think they also saw themselves as outsiders in New York.’
She was his muse, model and collaborator, working on a range of make-up and a fragrance bottle in the shape of an asymmetrical teardrop that was so distinctive it had no need for the Halston label.
In 1974, Halston introduced Peretti to the CEO of Tiffany & Co., who was looking to expand the brand’s customer base and was happy to consider selling silver, Peretti’s material of choice.
‘She was in the right place at the right time with the right idea,’ notes Cisamolo. In the 1970s, designers were seeking to democratise the luxury market: Peretti was one of a group of jewellery makers, including Angela Cummings (b. 1944) and Aldo Cipullo (1942-1984), who wanted to create beautiful but affordable pieces.
Peretti asked that her designs be named, and Tiffany & Co. agreed. Today all of her pieces are stamped with the ‘PERETTI’ logo in block capitals. ‘It shows a real strength of character,’ says Cisamolo. ‘To be a named jewellery designer in those days was rare, particularly if you were a woman. But Tiffany understood her appeal.’
One of her earliest designs for Tiffany was the ‘bone’ cuff, inspired by the bones from a 17th-century Capuchin church. ‘It had this sculptural power but was also feminine,’ says the specialist. Its hard-edged aesthetic was perfect for the second-wave feminist woman who wasn’t going to wait around to be bought jewellery. Soon Liza Minnelli and Sophia Loren were spotted wearing them.
Other innovations included the bean pendant, the silver mesh scarf and the now iconic open heart necklace, which became Tiffany’s most popular piece. Its form was inspired by the negative space in a Henry Moore sculpture. Her real stroke of genius, however, was her ‘diamonds by the yard’ necklace.
‘She took these tiny diamonds and set them at different lengths on the thinnest of chains,’ explains Cisamolo. ‘Women loved it because it was fun and lit up the décolletage.’ In fact, so popular did the necklace become that the firm felt obliged to raise the price to ensure it retained something of its exclusivity.
By 1978 Peretti was Tiffany’s leading designer, and at the highest point her pieces were said to generate 10 per cent of the company’s yearly revenue. ‘Everything she touched, women wanted,’ says Cisamolo. ‘At that time she was experimenting with gold, jade and lacquer, materials she had studied intensively on her travels in Japan and India.’
Then suddenly, at the height of her popularity in the 1980s, Peretti left New York. ‘She burnt out working too hard and living too fast,’ says the specialist. ‘She realised that if she didn’t escape she wouldn’t survive. The AIDS crisis had hit, and many of her friends were dying.’
Peretti moved to Sant Martí Vell, an ancient, abandoned village in Catalonia, Spain, near to where the silversmiths and craftsmen who worked on her designs were based. With no running water, she washed in the street and slept on a bench. She embarked on an ambitious renovation project that spanned 40 years and inspired her to branch out into homeware, with pieces in china, crystal and silver.
In 2012, she renegotiated her contract with Tiffany & Co. for another 20 years and was paid $47 million. Not that Peretti needed the money: when her father died, he left her shares in his business. She sued for more from her sister and ended up with 49 per cent. With it she created the Nando Peretti Foundation, later renamed The Nando and Elsa Peretti Foundation, which supports many environmental projects that were close to her heart.
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Today, Peretti’s jewellery is still extremely popular. ‘She appeals to women at all stages of life,’ says Cisamolo, who expects the market for her pieces to rise over the next few years. ‘The Tiffany Peretti collaboration is so much a part of the brand, I can’t see them stopping production any time soon.
‘She had an old soul and brought an Old-World European sensibility to hard-edged New York. The result was this perfect storm of beauty.’