Elsa Peretti, the acclaimed jewelry designer and fashion model, died at her home in Sant Martí Vell, Spain on March 18. For 50 years, her designs inspired countless women and left an indelible mark on the jewelry world. In a statement, Tiffany & Co. said, “Tiffany & Co. is deeply saddened by the passing of Elsa Peretti, famed jewelry designer for the House and member of the Tiffany family since 1974. 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.”
Peretti first rose to fame as a fashion model, most notably for the designer Halston, in New York in the 1970s. She was known not just for her striking silhouette, but for her unique personal style and sometimes wild antics. During her modeling years, Peretti was a fixture at Studio 54 and famously burned a fur coat after a fight with Halston. She appeared in numerous fashion magazines, including Vogue, and modeled for top photographers, like Helmut Newton. One of Newton’s most iconic photographs features Peretti in a Playboy Bunny costume standing on a balcony in the middle of Manhattan. The costume was her idea.
It was during her years as a model that Peretti began designing jewelry. She created pieces for herself at first, then expanded to design for others. In 1974, she debuted her first collection for Tiffany & Co. and became an instant sensation. Peretti’s minimalist, biomorphic designs were inspired by simple, natural things: bones, beans, hearts, and snakes. In her hands, simple became extraordinary. Bones weren’t macabre, they were fierce, strong, sensuous, and elegant. A bean wasn’t just a bean, it was a sleek jewel that evoked different meanings from the wearers. Mesh became precious, not utilitarian.
The Bone Cuff was one of her most famous pieces. Although the Bone Cuff celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2020, it’s still as chic and powerful as it was in the 1970s. The organic shape of the cuff carefully follows the contours of the wrist — there are right and left versions to ensure a perfect fit. Worn together, it’s reminiscent of Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman, which is one of the reasons why Gal Gadot donned a cuff in the recent Wonder Woman 1984 movie. The sleek, armor-like design is a timeless accessory for strong women.
It’s difficult to underestimate the importance of Peretti’s designs at Tiffany. In 2012, her designs accounted for 10% of the company’s sales worldwide, earning her a $47.5 million deal as well as yearly royalties to allow Tiffany & Co. to continue to license her name and designs. Not just a gorgeous model and a talented designer, Peretti was a savvy businesswoman who retained ownership of her designs.
Peretti was also a pioneer in jewelry materials — her designs weren’t necessarily expensive. She designed in sterling silver, which she reintroduced to Tiffany & Co. in 1974, as well as precious metals. The iconic Diamond by the Yard collection made diamonds affordable by spacing them out on a chain and mixing different sizes. But, the affordable prices never detracted from their beauty or desirability. A Diamonds by the Yard bracelet with one diamond costs just $325, but necklaces with more diamonds could sell for $20,000, $35,000, or more, and are just as coveted. And, there are endless versions to collect, including Color by the Yard and Pearl by the Yard.
Her legacy lives on in the pieces that thousands of women have collected over the years as well as in the collections of prestigious museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the British Museum.