Elsa Peretti, Jewelry Designer and Former Model, Dies at 80

Elsa Peretti, known worldwide for her jewelry designs for Tiffany & Co., as well as for her previous career as a fashion model, died in her sleep Thursday night at age 80.

According to a statement from her family office in Zurich, and the Nando and Elsa Peretti Foundation, the designer “passed away in a village close to Barcelona, Spain” of natural causes. Peretti had bought a house in the village, Sant Martí Vell, in 1968 and, over the decades, invested to restore the surrounding village.

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“Her legacy comprises a body of exceptional design work as well as a foundation dedicated to humanitarian, environmental and conservation causes,” the statement continued. “A true citizen of the world, her absence will be strongly felt within all the different circles where she played such an active and creative role.”

Peretti first entered the fashion world in the early 1960s as a model in Spain, moving to Manhattan later that decade and joining the Wilhelmina Modeling Agency. In the early ’70s, she became one of Halston’s favorites along with the likes of Anjelica Huston and Pat Cleveland.

Even as she was modeling, however, Peretti was designing jewelry for fashion designers including Giorgio di Sant’ Angelo in 1969 and, two years later, Halston. She won a Coty Award for jewelry design in 1971 and Bloomingdale’s opened an in-store boutique dedicated to her collection the following year. According to her family office, it was Halston who introduced Peretti to Tiffany and she signed on with the famed jeweler in 1972. Her minimal designs, especially in silver, immediately became a core part of the brand’s offering — at one point representing up to 10 percent of the company’s revenues.

“I don’t have the feeling that I need to add a lot to my collection, because I have an incredibly wide range of things,” Peretti told WWD last October in discussing the endurance of her designs. “But I’m happy to see designs that are so important to me reinvigorated in this way, made even more modern and relevant. This is part of the secret of my things, that they are still valid.”

“A woman who was larger-than-life has touched everyone at Tiffany & Co.,” the company said. “The relationships she created defined her. Elsa was not only a designer but a way of life.

“A masterful artisan, Elsa was responsible for a revolution in the world of jewelry design,” it added. “Her collections of organic, sensual forms have inspired generations. Elsa’s relationship with style and the natural world was profoundly personal and strongly reflected in her creations. Over the past nearly 50 years, Elsa has created some of the most innovative jewelry and object designs in the world. Elsa explored nature with the acumen of a scientist and the vision of a sculptor.”

The company added, “Elsa’s poetic designs and legacy will remain a constant inspiration for generations to come. Our hearts go out to her family, friends and family of artisans and craftspeople who realized her fantasies, she will be deeply missed by all of us at Tiffany & Co.”

Bernard Arnault, chairman and chief executive officer of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, which bought Tiffany last year for $15.8 billion, said in a statement: “I am deeply saddened by the loss of Elsa Peretti. She was an amazing woman who I admired for her creativity, vision, boldness and grace. Elsa possessed incredible talent and foresight, creating beautiful pieces that remain relevant and desirable across time, generations and geographies. A self-proclaimed ‘craftswoman,’ she contributed to the success of Tiffany & Co. for half a century and her work is on display at museums around the world.

“Elsa was also a generous individual who actively supported environmental issues, human rights, education, arts and culture. On behalf of the entire LVMH Group and especially our colleagues at Tiffany & Co. who had the privilege of knowing her, I send our collective condolences to her family and friends,” Arnault added.

Ralph Rucci described Peretti as the most important person in his career. “I have always said in interviews that my whole life changed when I saw her in the ’70s. She walked into an event in a black cashmere jumpsuit and stole carrying a brown little paper bag as her minaudière. The chic was so awesome,” he said.

“She would always urge me, ‘It should all be on your time. Do not rush anything. Creations cannot be rushed.’ I would say, ‘Well, you can’t think like that. You also have to pertain to schedules and so on.’”

When Rucci returned to couture in summer 2019, he dedicated the show to Peretti and invited her. As an homage, the show opened with a model wearing an oversize shirt with transparent shoulders and big black glasses and short black hair.

“She is a part of culture,” Rucci said. “Consider what she did in fine design. She revolutionized the idea of decorative jewelry for women who were usually in Van Cleef & Arpels diamonds walking into evening events wearing [Peretti designed] silver cuffs and a horseshoe belt, which I think is good luck. I have it on right now and I wear it every day of my life.”

Unable to attend Sunday’s private service in Spain for Peretti due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, Rucci said he and other close friends have been lamenting that. “I’m just so g–damn angry that we can’t just jump on a plane and be with her, and have a family,” he said.

Rucci recalled how the last time he and Peretti had spoken that she was a little down about the environmental hazards. “She was still filled with joy because, you know, Elsa did so much for so many people. She took care of so many people. And she was loved. She was very maternal apart from her style,” Rucci said. “Elsa said, ‘Think of everything going that is going on with the planet. It doesn’t matter how much that I do.’ That was Elsa.”

Reed Krakoff, who served as Tiffany’s chief artistic director from 2017 until late last year, said, “You can’t overstate the impact that Elsa had, not just on the jewelry category, but also on how women dress. What’s so amazing is the pieces she created, whether it’s ‘Diamonds by the Yard’ or the bone cuff, were done decades ago and are as relevant today — if not more so — than the day they were created.

“I think her work will live on for many, many years. Her talent and virtuosity transcends fashion and has become a part of women’s wardrobes. What’s incredible about her is not only did she develop iconic silhouettes that are somewhere between sculpture, art and jewelry but she also developed techniques,” he continued. “The chain mail she did, she found a technology used for knits and had this crazy idea of, ‘Why not knit precious metals on looms?’ and they did it for her and that became the chain mail pieces in the collection. She redefined how women wear diamonds with ‘Diamonds by the Yard.’ It was an invention that was a more informal expression of diamonds that could be worn with T-shirts and jeans.

“Obviously Tiffany has a long history with sterling, but she created objects that took sterling and elevated it to a new level. She took something that was a more approachable material and made it aspiration and elevated to create iconography.

“[When I was at Tiffany] we put together a book essentially of all the works she did during her time and it was nearly 500 pages. The volume of work is just breathtaking and the expansiveness of it, as someone in the industry, I just have this incredible view into the breadth and scale of the work she did over many decades. It was eye-opening. It took years to photograph all the pieces and lay them out,” Krakoff said.

“One of the amazing moments seeing the work she had done was when I was in Murano with the Seguso family and saw the original bowls she had done. Just to see something like that, that’s so simple and think how few pieces there are in the world of home design that just immediately conjure up an identity and point-of-view. Her work with artisans, she worked with an incredible number of experts in weaving, sterling, glass blowing, lacquer, porcelain, terracotta — she worked across every medium and kept a lot of these artisans in business. It’s really unbelievable,” he added.

Having first met Peretti as a Wilhelmina model in the ’70s, Bethann Hardison described her as “an interesting girl with an extraordinary style. She brought a whole new look from head-to-toe.” At that time, Wilhelmina was almost the opposition to Eileen Ford, since the European founder had a different way of looking at models. “They all weren’t what you would say next-door beauties,” Hardison said. “Elsa was somebody who came with a certain energy that was interesting. You saw that from a distance because you weren’t part of her circle per se. But anyone who came along in the ’70s, who was interesting, we were all aware of it. We were sort of like of the same tribe. Within that time frame came Naomi Sims, that’s what really brought me to knowing Elsa even more.”

Peretti then connected with Halston and had his support, which helped her to design jewelry and then the jewelry became something in itself. She was also close with Stephen Burrows, whom Hardison was also friendly with, as well as Bobby Breslau. “Elsa for me is like a time gone by. Whenever some like that leaves the earth, it is a reminder of all the greatness that we had during that time, and we did have a great time.”

Peretti was also “extremely generous,” in that she was “very good to people, who she cared about whether they had ideas about housing or buying things, she came through for them. That is something to be noted. And she cared. She was tough in the way that she spoke and the strength of energy. At the same time, she was an extraordinarily kind human being. If she liked you, she was 100 percent there for you.”

Cornelia Guest, who was a member of Halston’s circle in those days, described Peretti as “a force of nature. She was a force. She was gorgeous, fun and always lovely to me. I treasure my pieces from her.

André Leon Talley said, “Elsa Peretti defined modern style, not just in her work in jewelry and home accessories for Tiffany’s, but in her own personal sense of modern minimalism. She could literally take a shipper’s wooden slat from a moving van and convert it into an elegant table, to arrange her silver candlesticks and books, next to a priceless Chinese chippendale bed.”

Peretti was inspiring as a model in Vogue and at Halston, Talley said. Peretti and Halston “aligned in a universe of elegance,” he said. “Her bud vase necklaces were such an inventive thing, when they first appeared on the Halston catwalk with a simple blossom thrust inside and worn inside a low-slung halter evening look.”

Describing Peretti “as one of the greats, a great,” Talley recalled one of their nights out on the town together. “Marvin Gaye was playing the piano and singing in a concert at the Westbury Theatre. For her, this was a natural thing to just go up and sit on the piano bench next to Gaye, whom she had never met. No one stopped her or removed her. She was wearing something voluminous and black, of course, and silver minimal jewelry. Her own,” he said.

A very saddened Carlo Capasa, president of Italy’s Camera della Moda, described Peretti as “a woman who revolutionized the world of jewelry with her avant-garde creations. I will always remember her iconic jewels with an extraordinary and powerful aesthetics, but at the same time feminine and simple.

“Elsa was not only an authentic pioneer in the world of design, but also in her personal life, where through her foundation she always committed to support projects that would benefit local communities, also tackling issues with a global relevance, among which, only to mention some, the preservation of the environment and the biodiversity; inclusivity and social welfare; education and the promotion and protection of human rights and the rule of law. She will surely be missed,” he added.

Peretti was born in Florence on May 1, 1940, and attended schools in Rome and Switzerland, according to her family office’s statement, later returning to Rome to study interior design. Her jewelry design and modeling careers overlapped at the beginning, but she eventually focused completely on jewelry.

“Her inspiration was often drawn from everyday items — a bean, a bone, an apple could be transformed into cuff links, bracelets, vases or lighters; scorpions and snakes were turned into appealing necklaces or rings, often in silver, which was one of her preferred materials,” her family office said. “She herself stated that ‘There is no new design, because good lines and shapes are timeless.’”

She first moved to Sant Martí Vell in Catalonia, Spain, in 1968, restoring a house there, and eventually moved on to restore entire sections of the village, including the church, the excavation of Roman ruins and establishing a working vineyard whose wines have been sold under the Eccocivi brand since 2008.

Her designs are in permanent collections at the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Fine arts in Boston and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. In addition to the Coty Award, she received a Council of Fashion Designers of America Award in 1996 as Accessory Designer of the Year, and the Rhode Island School of Design President’s Fellow Award in 1981.

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