It’s International Women’s Day, so today’s spotlight had to be on trailblazing jewellery designer Elsa Peretti, who started out as the epitome 70s cool and continues to design gorgeous, innovative jewellery to this day. I mean, what’s not to love about a woman who casually refers to Andy Warhol (once a close friend) as ‘a bit of a shit’…?
Born in Florence in 1940, Peretti studied interior design before becoming a fashion model and moving to New York in the 1960s. It was in New York that she began to design jewellery independently, creating forward-thinking pieces in sensual shapes and elegant materials.
A significant member of the Studio 54 scene, in the late 60s and early 70s, Peretti lived a tempestuous life that was as glamorous and edgy as her designs. After several drug-fuelled years, she got clean, going on to win the Coty award for her jewellery designs in 1971. In 1972, Bloomingdale’s gave her her own boutique spot; the same year, she made her first Vogue appearance. She also designed for close friend and fellow club-scene-member, fashion designer Halston.
In 1974, Peretti joined Tiffany as a designer, and it was this partnership which made her a household name. It continues to this day, with the now-elderly Peretti designing from her Catalan bolt-hole, Sant Martí Vell. She still makes 10% of Tiffany’s profits from her designs, more than any other designer in the company.
So, why is Elsa Peretti such a significant figure in jewellery design? Part of her success lies in how effectively her original designs captured a moment and a mood, that of seventies New York. Rebellion, excess, disco, women’s liberation – it’s all reflected in the boldness and sculptural nature of Peretti’s designs, which are meant to take the wearer effortlessly from boardroom to dancefloor. From statement cuffs to stylised hearts and hoop earrings, it’s that most elusive of styles: wearable high fashion.
The young Peretti was no stranger to rebellion by the time she began designing; she fled her wealthy, conservative family for Barcelona at 21, before moving to America to model. Endowed with natural style and charisma, she modelled to pay the bills while pursuing her real interest: jewellery design.
Not content with simply designing, Peretti began to change trends in jewellery design as well, using silver in her work. At the time, silver was considered ‘common’ in fine jewellery, but Peretti’s elegant, exciting, silver designs soon changed that.
The first piece Peretti made was a tiny silver vase, hung from a chain and with a tiny rosebud inside it. Anyone who was anyone went made for the novel idea, and vases & bottles are a popular motif in Peretti’s collections even today:
Her simple, sexy designs were unlike anything that had come before, and her most iconic piece, the 1974 ‘Bone’ cuff was an instant hit with everyone from Sophia Loren to Liza Minelli. Even today, this design appears on the red-carpet wrists of the likes of Rachel Weisz and Rosamund Pike, showing its timeless appeal and eternal cool.
Peretti is also inspirational because of her take-no-shit attitude and enormous work ethic. She insisted on keeping her own name and intellectual property rights when she signed with Tiffany & Co., so her collection is ‘Elsa Peretti for Tiffany’. She also isn’t backward in coming forward about her success: as she put it to Vanity Fair, ‘I am very happy with what I’ve done. I knew a man wasn’t going to give me money,’
In 2000, Peretti took the money she had inherited from her family and put it into a foundation in her father’s name. The Nando Peretti foundation works globally to support human rights, women’s rights, environmental protection, and a host of other causes, and Peretti is personally involved in the work even now.
If that wasn’t enough, in 2012, aged 72, she signed a new 20-year contract with Tiffany!