Tiffany & Co. 101: How Elsa Peretti
Gave The Brand Her Cool
By Ann B, May 26, 2021
“She made the dress she was modeling her own,” said Halston.
Elsa Peretti was born into wealth, but after being cut off by her conservative parents, she came into her own for being a style maven, as a model, muse — and a groundbreaking jewelry designer. Peretti designed jewelry for Tiffany & Co. for five decades, with her designs making 10 percent of the company’s annual revenue.
Elsa Peretti in her studio in 1974 by Duane Michals. Courtesy d.
Elsa Peretti may have entered the world into a life of privilege, but she made her name all on her own — at first as a model, then a muse, and finally for designing jewelry for the masses with Tiffany & Co. The Italian model-turned-designer has been in the headlines lately after she passed away on March 18, 2021, and, two months after with the release of the Netflix series Halston, starring French actress Rebecca Dayan as Peretti and Ewan McGregor as Halston. The dramatic nature of Peretti’s designs often reflected the drama in her real life.
Born into Privilege
Born in Florence, Italy, to Maria Luigia Pighini and Ferdinando Peretti, the founder of Anonima Petroli Italiana, a leading oil-and-energy corporation, Peretti’s family sent her to the best schools in Switzerland and Rome. She became fluent in four languages — Italian, Spanish, French, and English — and worked as a ski instructor in the chic Swiss ski town of Gstaad. She returned to Rome to study interior design before apprenticing under the architect Dado Torrigiani in Milan. Although her father’s position could have afforded her a life of leisure, Peretti’s free-flying nature clashed with her family’s conservative values. They cut her off financially in the early ‘60s. Her life took a turn when she moved to Barcelona to become a model.
With the help of Wilhelmina Cooper and her eponymous agency, Peretti made the move across the Atlantic to New York in February of 1968, but not without a bit of drama; she hid in her hotel room for days while waiting for a black eye from a boyfriend who, she told Vanity Fair in 2014, “didn’t want me to go.” She would become the muse to the fashion designers of the time — Charles James, Issey Miyake, Giorgio di Sant’Angelo — and eventually Halston, for whom she started to design jewelry in 1971.
Fact or Fiction? Elsa Peretti in the Netflix Halston Series
In the Netflix Halston series, the lines between fact and fiction are blurred. For instance, Peretti’s iconic flower vase necklace, which dangles from a leather cord. It was inspired by a silver vase she saw at a flea market, and made its runway debut on a model at a Sant’Angelo show in 1969, not at a Halston show. In the series, the accessory became the best-selling item for Halston that season. “Everybody wanted that little flask!” Elsa told Vanity Fair, referring not to Halston’s, but to the Sant’Angelo show where a model wore it with a little rose. Peretti eventually walked down a Halston runway wearing the iconic necklace in 1974. She did design the polarizing – executives told Halston it was too difficult to produce in mass – asymmetrical bottle for Halston’s fragrance. Still, although she ended moving to his apartment when he left it for his Upper East Side townhouse, it was not Halston’s payment for the perfume bottle, nor was the introduction to Tiffany & Co. Peretti did receive a sable in the Netflix show and real life for the Halston bottle design as well as, according to some reports $25,000. The fragrance would go on to be the best-selling in the world (even to this day on Amazon.) There would be a tiff at Studio 54 where Peretti poured vodka — but it was over Halston’s feet, not on the fur — and break the bottle, and it was after an incident where its owner Steve Rubell, called her honey pie and she took it in offense. When Halston responded, according to Vanity Fair, “This is why I don’t want to see you,” was when she had the vodka tantrum. The sable played no part, and Halston did not take it off her. That got incinerated at Halston’s townhouse in 1978 when she threw it in the fire after a tense dinner over caviar, baked potatoes, and cocaine with Halston and illustrator Joe Eula. In the Netflix series, that takes place at Halston’s Montauk home before the Studio 54 incident.
Tiffany & Co.
Halston did set up the meeting with Peretti and Tiffany & Co. CEO Walter Hoving in 1974. The executive signed a deal with her in less than 20 minutes — and the rest is history. “I did something for fun,” said Peretti in a 1990 interview in the 2019 Frédéric Tcheng Halston documentary. “It became a success.” The success was big — Elsa Peretti’s designs for Tiffany & Co. would make up 10 percent of its annual sales. Hiring Peretti would breathe new life into the staid and stogy American jewelry company, which was recently acquired by French luxury conglomerate LVMH.
Elsa Peretti designs for Tiffany & Co. photographed by Duane Michals in December 1974.
Peretti brought a fresh breath of air to Tiffany & Co., introducing a lot of changes within the company. Her use of silver returned the metal back to Tiffany & Co., which hadn’t used it since 25 years before. Most of her creations were meant to be worn every day to add an element of classy yet affordable cool to the woman’s wardrobe. “You need to be able to go out on the street with your jewelry,” Ms. Peretti once told The Wall Street Journal. “Women can’t go around wearing $1 million.” Her collections, like the Bone Cuff, Diamonds by the Yard, and The Bottle Pendant, modernized Tiffany & Co. When her collection debuted, crowds of people surrounded the store.
“I design for the working girl,” Peretti said in a 1974 People interview. “What I want is not to become a status symbol, but to give beauty at a price.” Peretti’s creations did so well for Tiffany & Co., that in 2019 the company estimated that her designs were sold once every minute in its stores around the globe. The Open Heart pieces sold once every three minutes. At the end of 2014, Tiffany & Co. gave her a 20-year contract, that included an immediate $47.3 million payment, plus annual royalties.
Peretti may have been the mastermind behind her minimal, boundary-pushing designs, but it was the artisans she worked with in Japan, China, Spain, Italy, and other parts of Europe. The blew glass for her, sculpted the silver, and did other various metalwork. “I didn’t want to become someone,” she told Vanity Fair. “I wanted to do what I wanted, to work with artisans, with my people. They bring my fantasies to life.”
Sketches of bones from Elsa Peretti’s 1990 book ‘Fifteen of My Fifty.’ The book celebrated her 15-year anniversary at Tiffany and her 50th birthday. Courtesy The Adventurine.
The allure and decadence of the free-spirited ‘70s seduced Peretti, who was a regular fixture on the New York nightlife scene, hitting hot spots like Le Jardin, Max’s Kansas City, Paradise Garage, and of course — Studio 54. That’s where the Halston set, which included Peretti, Halston, Eula, Halston’s Victor Hugo, Liza Minelli, Pat Cleveland, and; Andy Warhol, were regulars. Cigarettes, alcohol, and lots of cocaine were consumed, and countless wild nights full of dancing and debauchery ensued. During this time, Peretti was rarely sober.
That Infamous Helmut Newton Photo
Although Peretti never married, she had numerous lovers, including an affair with photographer Helmut Newton in the ‘70s. One morning, he wanted to shoot her photo, and she decided to throw on a bunny costume, and the photo would become one of Newton’s most iconic images.
Elsa Peretti by Helmut Newton in 1975. Courtesy Photo America.
It Takes a Village (for Elsa)
It was love at first sight when Peretti first saw photos of the village Sant Martí Vell in Catalonia, near Barcelona. She knew it would be her fate as she set out to live in the decrepit town that was sparsel populated in mostly in ruins. She started out with two small buildings from money saved from modeling.She eventually purchased most of the village, lovingly restoring the buildings, including a stone building she owned for five decades, which became her primary residence. She spent her final years in Sant Martí Vell, until she passed away in March 2021.
Cool Girl Cachet
Worn by several bold names over the years, Peretti’s designs could look as good on a preppy girl-next-door as they would on an ultra cool fashion It girl. Kate Middleton wore one of her necklaces in her 2010 engagement photos, Liza Minelli wears Peretti’s jewelry regularly, as does actresses like Keira Knightley, Catherine Deneuve, and Margot Robbie. Diana Vreeland, Rihanna, Angelina Jolie, Zoë Kravitz, Taylor Swift, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Emma Stone have all been spotted in her pieces.
Liza Minelli in a Bone Cuff in 1972. Courtesy Town & Country.
Kate Middleton wears Elsa Peretti’s Color by the Yard in cabochon and diamonds for her 2009 engagement photos. Courtesy Pop Sugar UK.
In pop culture, Gal Gadot wore the Bone Cuff in Wonder Woman, Renée Zellweger wore the Open Heart Necklace in several of the Bridget Jones films, and Sarah Jessica Parker wore the Bone Cuff in Sex and the City.
Renée Zellweger wore an open-heart necklace in all of the Bridget Jones movies.
Sara Jessica Parker wears a Bone Cuff as Carrie in Sex and the City. Courtesy Harper’s Bazaar.
According to the Rebag buying team, the Tiffany & Co. Elsa Peretti collection is a popular design on the resale market, as they are relatively on the lower price points for fine jewelry and there are so many styles catering to various demographics and tastes. On average the current investment value for a Tiffany & Co. Elsa Peretti jewelry piece is between 40 to 70 percent of the retail price.
Pendant: 45mm X 35mm
Elsa Peretti Diamonds By The Yard 11 Stone Necklace 18K Yellow Gold and Diamonds 1.54CT
Width: 0.1 mm
Elsa Peretti Diamonds By The Yard Continuous Necklace 18K Yellow Gold and Diamonds 4mm
Width: 0.15 mm
Elsa Peretti Open Heart Mesh Pendant Necklace 18K Yellow Gold 36mm
Length: 28.5 “
Pendant Length: 36.00 “
Pendant Width: 33.60 “
Elsa Peretti’s Product Range and Special Editions
The Else Peretti Bottle Pendant
Courtesy The Jewellry Editor
It was a silver flower vase that Peretti saw at a fleamarket that inspired her to reach out to a silversmith in Spain to realize the necklace. She put a tiny rose in it at the Giorgio di Sant’Angelo show, and that was its tipping point.
The Elsa Peretti Bone Cuff
Courtesy Prestige Hong Kong.
Folklore has it that Peretti was inspired to create her iconic Bone Cuff from childhood memories of seeing monk’s bones in a crypt at a 17th-century church. Some reports say she stole some of the bones as a mischevious kid. In 2019, Tiffany & Co. unveiled limited edition colors red, blue, and green.
The Elsa Peretti Open-Heart Pendant
Peretti often noted that the openness of Henry Moore’s sculptures inspired her ubiquitous Open Heart pendant. The artist Alexander Calder was another reference.
Elsa Peretti’s Diamonds by the Yard
Peretti made sure that the settings of the diamonds on these necklaces and bracelets didn’t snag. It was Halston who called them “Diamonds by the Yard” when he first saw them. The name stuck.
The Elsa Peretti Equestrian Belt
A trip to Mexico inspired this belt. Its starting point was equestrian gear she saw there.
The Elsa Peretti Bean
Courtesy Closet Trading Co.
According to Tiffany & Co., The Bean represents the original of all things.
A snake’s skeleton influenced the design of this necklace.