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).
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).
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 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.