Elsa Peretti obituary
Silver was fashionable for Arts and Crafts and art nouveau jewellery around the turn into the 20th century, but then fell back into second-best position, fine for folkwear and cigarette cases, but thought too common for a chic neck, wrist or lapel. That was not the belief of Elsa Peretti, who has died aged 80. She began her long career designing jewellery in 1969 when, in a market, she bought an old silver vase that looked like a classical amphora and worked with a smith in Catalonia to produce a miniature copy. She wore it slung on a thong as a necklace, filled with a single flower.
Like most of her plentiful ideas, it was fresh when new, and did not become stale because of imitations or decades in production. Peretti took time over her designs, more in their simplification than their invention: a “bean” that slid along its chain; a “yard of diamonds” – a concept from the New York designer Halston, for whom she was muse and model – tiny real stones set in mounts irregularly along a fine necklace; a cast “cuff” bracelet, inspired by her memory of smooth knobs of human bone in a Capuchin crypt. They were both modern (the heroine of the film Wonder Woman 1984 is all the stronger for a Peretti “bone cuff”) and ancient; when the British Museum added her work to its collection, it looked at home.
They were also pieces, especially the silver teardrop earrings that softened Peretti’s short hair, that she would have bought for herself. This was crucial to her success. Women had long shopped for costume jewellery made of base metals, bakelite or acrylic, but lacked their own money and social permission for precious metals or stones; it was acceptable to buy your own diamante, but not diamonds. Peretti ignored the boundaries between fine and costume jewellery and her pieces became trophies for working women, affordable from their own earnings.
In 1974, Halston introduced her to the CEO of Tiffany & Co, retailer of big and little luxuries, which was looking for a wider – if lower-spending – customer base. Tiffany’s was not snobbish about silver – it paid for Peretti’s travel to meet craftworkers and choose natural materials around the world, and contracted her to design regular collections. Over decades, she generated about 10% of Tiffany’s turnover and when she threatened to withdraw her name and ideas in 2012, it signed her up for 20 more years and paid her $47m.
“I’m very happy with what I’ve done [in life],” she told Vanity Fair in old age. “I knew a man wasn’t going to give me money.”
Peretti had, in fact, been born into wealth, in Florence, Italy, but was almost penniless at 21. Her father was Ferdinando Peretti, founder of an oil business that in the postwar years had grown into a huge corporation, and she was brought up, with schooling in Switzerland, among the best materials and craftsmanship. But she escaped her family’s stuffy milieu and her father, and mother, Maria Luigia, cut contact and financial support.
Elsa went to Barcelona, and started to model; for the rest of her life, she worked regularly with Catalan craftsmen, and came to own much of an underpopulated village a drive from the city. In 1968 she moved to New York, working for Wilhelmina Cooper’s agency, which recruited stylish if difficult models. Peretti was a character and became an international favourite.
She had befriended Halston before he turned from designing hats to clothes, and created that vase necklace for a show by Giorgio di Sant’Angelo; for much of the 70s she was muse and disrupter of a pack that also included Andy Warhol.
Peretti was afterwards candid about her disco years (the clique was trouble in residence at Studio 54) and the vodka, cocaine and Gauloises that provoked her outbursts, as recorded in Warhol’s diaries and gossipy memoirs. The fusses were also about her wanting to be recognised for her own design talent – she threw a fur coat Halston had given her into a fire because she felt it inadequate recompense for creating the famous bottle for his bestselling perfume.
A wild life, its dissipation concealed behind trademark enormous glasses, was good publicity for her work, as were the photographs by her then-lover, Helmut Newton, of Peretti as a parody Playboy bunny on a Manhattan balcony.
Yet she was disciplined enough always to deliver commissions, and kept enough distance to retreat regularly to her adopted village, Sant Martí Vell, making her main home there from the early 80s. She employed local artisans for her own-label brand, as well as Tiffany’s, and spent her big fashion-world profits on restoring the village’s buildings over almost 50 years as well as setting up enterprises, including wine-making.
Peretti had other big money to spend too. Her father at last appreciated her worth after reading about her design success in the US, and they met before his death in 1977; he left her sister Mila more than half the shares in his business, and the rest to Peretti. She sued for more, and was eventually awarded 49%; their sale funded the diverse international projects of her charitable foundation.
Her crazy-years lovers were many, but the durable romance was with a truck driver, Stefano Magini. They met when he delivered building stone to one of her very many houses in 1978 and were together for 23 years.
She is survived by her sister.