who is elsa peretti:
Photograph by Duane Michals. Published in Vogue, December 1974.
Even Andy Warhol was nonplussed: “I never saw so many people before,” the king of Pop art said at the mobbed launch of Elsa Peretti’s jewelry collection at Tiffany's. Vogue was similarly taken aback, breathlessly reporting, “They’re queuing up to buy diamonds (diamonds!) by the yard and silver minaudières sculptured to the grasp of a hand, and her little 18-carat beans are moving so fast you’d think they were 49 cents a dozen.”
“Ripeness,” as Shakespeare said, “is all.” And Peretti’s essential, organic, and tactile designs, which she debuted on the runways at Giorgio Sant’Angelo and Halston in 1969, were a perfect complement to the earthy fashions of the day, not to mention the slinkier, disco-night styles of the coming decade. As the fashion critic Bernadine Morris put it in 1974, “An array of precious stones in elaborate settings is simply out of place with the prevailing shirt-and-skirt or sweater-and-pants way of dressing. What women are trying to achieve, in addition to comfort, with their mingling of separates, is a certain amount of individuality.”
Individuality is something that Peretti—a well-born Roman who scandalized her family by leaving home to teach, and eventually model—has in spades. She came to New York in 1968 via Spain and quickly made her mark. “Elsa’s the only woman who can arrive at a dinner party dressed in a black cashmere jumpsuit with a rope of diamonds around her neck and look terrific carrying a brown paper bag as her evening purse,”Vogue noted approvingly. Her signature look was a Halston blouse worn with cropped hair, pants, and oversize glasses.
It was Halston who introduced Peretti to Tiffany & Co. In 1974, the company’s top brass were looking for “someone who could make jewelry that women could wear with jeans and sweaters as well as their ball gowns” (as People reported at the time), and she fit the bill perfectly. The classic American jeweler hadn’t sold silver pieces for some 25 years, but less than two years after the launch of Peretti’s line Vogue would write that her creations were “so simple and so sensuous and so right for our times, that to own an ‘Elsa Peretti’ has become a goal.”
“You don’t need a rich sugar daddy to afford Elsa’s jewelry,” Tiffany’s president, Henry Piatt, said, not mincing words. By using relatively affordable silver, bamboo, and lacquer, Peretti made it possible for middle-class working women to buy themselves something smashing in a little blue box. A slithering snake, a bone, a Henry Moore sculpture, a fit of depression, a flea-market find . . . these are some of the things that have inspired Elsa Peretti’s designs. (The Henry Moore sculpture became her perennially popular open heart; her sadness translated into a teardrop.)
“All my work comes out of my life. I’m gifted and see lines and shapes where no one else does,” she once told The New York Times. With this gift Peretti has not only created timeless pieces, but helped usher in a sea change in the industry. “She was the one who brought a totally new concept into the jewelry field,” said Diane Von Furstenberg, another paragon of chic designing for the woman on the street, “making things you want to touch and hold.”
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