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Elsa Peretti


Elsa Peretti (1940 – ) In a February 1974 article that appeared in The New York Times, the then well-established fashion model and denizen of the New York club scene, Elsa Peretti told the newspaper, “It was hard for me to model here. The perfect American model [is] blond, looked 16 and beautiful. I was too tall, too strange, too Spanish, they said.”

While her friends encouraged and used her to show-off their clothes, modeling was how she made money, not her primary interest. What always fascinated her were objects, both the shape and the feel of them. She instinctively knows that a silver bracelet has an added dimension of touch if it looks as though the molder’s thumb is still on it. Even then, she worked closely with the craftsmen who made her designs in Spain. She was always on the lookout for crystal and semiprecious stones for her latest collections.

Even though her friends were accustomed to Elsa’s follies, they were aghast when, in 1968, she bought two ramshackle houses in the nearly abandoned village of San Marti Vell, an hour from Barcelona. The houses had no electricity, no running water, the rain poured in through the roof, but the price was “convenient” $3,000 for each house. She began restoring them in 1972.

Today, the houses are her home and also home to The Nando and Elsa Peretti Foundation that provides grants to projects which fall into one of the following areas: Charity, Educational, Environmental conservation, Medical research, Construction, Cultural/Artistic. The categories “Campaigns” and “Historical Partners” include projects which are grouped according to various criteria.

Peretti was born in Florence, Italy on May 1, 1940 and was youngest daughter of Ferdinando Peretti (1896–1977) and Maria Luisa Pighini. Ferdinando Peretti founded Anonima Petroli Italiana (API), a large Italian oil company, in 1933. Elsa was estranged from her conservative family for much of her life after essentially running away from home in 1963 and moving to Milan to pursue a degree in interior design and to work for the architect Dado Torrigiani.

In 1964, Peretti entered the world of fashion modeling working in Barcelona, Spain. In 1968 she moved to New York City on the advice of the Wilhelmina Modeling Agency. During the 1970s Peretti was heavily involved in the drug scene around Studio 54, along with designer Halston.

In 1969, Peretti began creating jewelry styles for a handful of fashion designers in Manhattan. Her first design was a two-inch bud vase made of sterling-silver, worn on a leather thong that was inspired by a find at a flea market. Worn by one of Giorgio di Sant’ Angelo’s models, it became a “style.”

By 1971, she was designing jewelry for Halston. She continued to use silver, which went from being “common” to becoming a choice for celebrities including Liza Minnelli. Pieces like Bone Cuff were seen as incorporating organic forms with an appreciation of the human body while bridging a gap between costume and serious jewelry.

By the time Peretti joined Tiffany & Co. as an independent designer, she had received the 1971 Coty Award and had her first appearance in Vogue magazine. In 1972 Bloomingdale’s opened a dedicated Peretti boutique. In 1974, Peretti signed a contract with Tiffany & Co to design silver jewelry and by 1979, she was the firm’s leading designer. Her silver pieces were considered fun and attracted a younger clientele. Peretti also designed silverware for Tiffany but only after she had an established following for her jewelry.

Peretti designed over thirty collections for Tiffany. In the process, she traveled to Japan, China, and Europe, drawing on the work of craftsmen there in the creation of her classic collections that included Bean, Open Heart, Mesh, Bone, and Zodiac. In addition to using sterling silver, part of her signature is the use of materials including jade, lacquer, and rattan. In 2012, Tiffany and Peretti extended their partnership for another 20 years. In 2015, her trademarked Elsa Peretti designs represented eight percent of Tiffany’s net sales. Her work has been described as “revolutionary, timeless, distinct and modern”.

As mentioned above, Peretti bought a house in the run down village of Sant Martí Vell in Catalonia, Spain. Over the next ten years she had the house restored, often living in rough conditions during the process. By the 1980s, the mustard-yellow house was her refuge and her preferred home. Pieces including her scorpion necklace, now in the British Museum, were inspired by the flora and fauna of Sant Martí Vell.

Since then Peretti worked to restore parts of the surrounding village, purchasing additional buildings and having them renovated. As of 2017, about half the village had been rebuilt. Her projects included the renovation of the interior of Església de Sant Martí Vell, the parochial church of Sant Martí Vell. Peretti has also supported the management of the sixteenth-century historical documents of the town, the conservation of the photographic archive of Oriol Maspons, and the conservation of the Roman city of Empúries.

Examples of her work on display in the British Museum include Peretti’s silver candlesticks inspired by the human bones from the Capuchin crypt at Santa Maria della Concezione in Rome. The display of silver tableware originated in Spain and Italy, while her glass vessels were hand made using time-honored Venetian methods by master glass-blowers from the Archimede Seguso Company in Murano.

Among the display are personal items including Peretti’s bamboo bag made by a master bamboo weaver in Japan. Her rock crystal scent-bottle echoes Chinese snuff-bottles of the 17th or 18th century and was carved in Hong Kong; alongside it are rock-crystal samples showing the stages in achieving the form from a single lump of stone. Peretti’s infinitely supple mesh scarf, made of knitted gold links, revived the fine metal mesh used for evening bags in the early 20th century.

According to the Tiffany & Co., website, “Elsa Peretti creates sensual, organic shapes that delight the eye and become one with the body. She is credited with giving sterling silver its pride of place in jewelry design and creating diamond jewelry that is wearable every day.

“Peretti’s understated approach to diamonds revolutionized the way gemstones were worn. “If diamonds are mounted like this the light is different. They look like drops of light, like a stream—very modern,” she explains.”

Among her collections are her Doughnut Bangles that are lacquer bangles created in Japan using ancient techniques. “Behind them lie centuries of culture and a long process of loving production,” she says. They are also available in sterling silver and 18k gold.

The Elsa Peretti Open Heart is one of the world’s favorite jewelry designs. Peretti credits sculptor Henry Moore, whose work is often characterized by abstract figures with open spaces, as its inspiration.

The Bone Cuff embraces the wrist in sensually sculpted metal and the Cabochon Ring is a smooth form of the cabochon-cut stone set in a simple bezel.

Now 78, Peretti retains the vitality for which she is well known, but absent is the lithe figure that propelled her into modeling stardom in 1970s New York before she launched her successful jewelry line for Tiffany & Co., which will soon celebrate her 45th anniversary there.

Peretti’s awards and honors include the aforementioned American Fashion Critics Coty award in 1971; the President’s Fellow award from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1981; The Spirit of Achievement Award from Albert Einstein College (1982), the Cultured Pearl Industry award (1987); and the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s Accessories Designer of the Year (1996).

In 2013, she received The National Prize of Culture from the Catalan Government, awarded annually to individuals or organizations that have distinguished themselves for their outstanding contribution in their respective cultural areas. Peretti has also been honored as a Grande Ufficiale, Ordine al Merito della Repubblica Italiana (Order of Merit of the Italian Republic), received the Grand Cross pro Merito Melitensi (Order of Malta) and made an Honorary member of the Circolo di San Pietro.

Some of her creations are also on display at the Indianapolis Museum of Art in Indiana, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas.

While she remained estranged from her family and, especially, her father, she did, eventually, inherit a fortune from him. Just months before he died, in 1977, the two had a reconciliation. A cover story on her in Newsweek helped instigate it. The businessman had it translated into Italian and was finally full of pride and respect for his daughter’s accomplishments. Sadly, Elsa had only a fleeting period of time to enjoy his approval. In his will he left her 44.25 percent of API’s shares.

Throughout her turbulent and highly successful multiple careers, Peretti’s philosophy has not wavered. “Style is to be simple” – Elsa Peretti.

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