Fashion & Beauty

Elsa Peretti, 1940-2021, and Simply Stylish

There are several versions of Elsa Peretti’s Bone Cuff: different materials, different sizes, different . . . well, different bones. Inspired, Peretti said, by the monks’ bones she saw in a 17th-century church while growing up. / Original designs copyrighted by Elsa Peretti. © Tiffany & Company.

By Nancy McKeon

IT WAS 1974, and girls of a certain age had to somehow get their parents or their boyfriend to give them a “Bean” pendant by Elsa Peretti. It was just that simple.

Well, not so simple. Peretti’s sensuous, organic sterling-silver lima bean was part of her debut collection for Tiffany & Company, which had just recently embraced the designer and her use of the “lesser” material silver. The collection had sold out on the first day and, going forward, gave Tiffany access to a younger customer, who could afford silver and might grow up into gold and serious gems. It also gave the older customer a way to wear the more-youthful metal that didn’t skew  Southwestern and involve large chunks of  turquoise and a fringed suede jacket (although I’m in the market for one of those right now).

This is the little Bean that created a new era of understated but still statusy jewelry. A tiny sterling silver bean on a 16-inch chain is now $175; slightly larger and in 18-karat gold, it is $1,400. (My 1976-1977 Tiffany catalogue shows a small bean in 18-karat gold on a 14-inch chain for $375!) Over the decades, the bean motif has been rendered in jade and lacquered wood, and has morphed into minaudières, leather tabletop trinket boxes, paperweights and more. / Original designs copyrighted by Elsa Peretti. © Tiffany & Company.

According to the New York Times and other sources, the Fifth Avenue jeweler hadn’t at that point sold silver jewelry in at least 25 years. (By the time of my 1976-1977 Tiffany catalogue, in addition to the 12 pages devoted to Peretti designs, there is another, separate dozen pages of silver chain necklaces, link bracelets, earrings and pendants.) In some of the years that followed her debut, Peretti pieces could account for as much as 8 or 10 percent of Tiffany’s sales.

By the time of Peretti’s death at age 80 on Friday, March 19, Tiffany had given her a 45-year-long ride—and vice versa—but it’s not where she started. She famously arrived in New York as a model, estranged from her wealthy Italian family (modeling and carousing at Studio 54 will do that, but she and her father had reconciled by the time of his death in 1977, according to the Times).

Here Elsa Peretti wears her original Bottle pendant and a Bone Cuff. A silver Bottle Pendant with a turquoise stopper is currently on offer at Tiffany on a 28-inch chain for $900. An 18-karat-gold Open Bottle (no stopper) is $3,500. / Original designs copyrighted by Elsa Peretti. © Tiffany & Company.

Her first piece—a small silver bud-vase pendant worn on a long leather cord, found its moment in a Giorgio di Sant’Angelo runway show, even set against his riot of color and voluminous skirts. When she began her association with Halston, his absolutely minimal lines and absence of decoration made the perfect setting for her off-center Open Heart pendant and belt buckle, and the impressively sized, rigid Bone Cuff. They were noticed—and so was she.

I never did get my Bean. Or an Open Heart. Or any Diamonds by the Yard. But I have enough Peretti to serve as reminders of her particular genius: a Padova Parmesan knife, a small red-enamel ballpoint pen, a Thumbprint bowl or two.

The Open Heart is a pendant, a ring, a key ring, the handle of a baby spoon. It is silver, it is gold, it is turquoise, it is jade. It has diamonds on it . . . or not. / Original designs copyrighted by Elsa Peretti. © Tiffany & Company.

The simplicity of Peretti ‘s designs can obscure the intellectual rigor behind them. The Shaker song says, ” ‘Tis the gift to be simple.” “Simple” was also lucrative. According to the Washington Post, the new 20-year contract Peretti signed in 2012 with Tiffany, now owned by the luxury conglomerate LVMH, gave her an outright payment of more than $47 million, plus $450,000 per year and a 5% royalty on net sales of her designs. In 2019, Tiffany estimated that its stores around the world sold an object designed by Peretti once every minute.

Padova, named for Padua, the Italian city where this style is crafted, is salad servers, a bread knife, a pasta server and more (even an ice cream scoop and a $165 pizza cutter). / Original designs copyrighted by Elsa Peretti. © Tiffany & Company.

A Thumbprint Bowl by Peretti. Like her other designs, it can become, it seems, just about anything. / Original designs copyrighted by Elsa Peretti. © Tiffany & Company.

Another Peretti inspiration: a scattering of bezel-mounted diamonds for everyday wear–Diamonds by the Yard. The style can be one tiny diamond set in sterling silver ($350) or 15 set in platinum (total weight almost 3 carats, $20,000). / Original designs copyrighted by Elsa Peretti. © Tiffany & Company.


2 thoughts on “Elsa Peretti, 1940-2021, and Simply Stylish

  1. The chain with a gold heart is looking so pretty both gold and silver chains all things are so unique. Thanks for sharing such an amazing and informative article please keep sharing and update us.

  2. Nancy G says:

    I have a small silver open heart necklace, and a silver bone wrist cuff, both of which I love and wear all the time (and bought for myself since I just wanted them as soon as I saw them – wasn’t waiting for an “occasion”). Her designs are just my style. Sorry she’s gone. Beautiful and talented.

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