Elsa Peretti died in her sleep Thursday night at the age of 80. In light of the sad news, Town and Country magazine republished this 2016 interview with the iconic jewelry designer, in which she spoke about her legacy and how she wants to be remembered.
BY WHITNEY ROBINSON For Town and Country
Elsa Peretti hasn't spoken to the press in years. Now she wants to talk about star signs. We're sitting in the expansive living room of her penthouse in Rome, one of several apartments she has in the city (this one, designed by Renzo Mongiardino, belonged to her father). The floors are terracotta; all the furniture is burlwood, inlaid marble, or rattan; and there is a wraparound terrace facing the umbrella pines in the Borghese Gardens. We're smoking Gauloises cigarettes—Peretti stashes them in an undulating sterling silver box of her own design—and drinking Frescobaldi extra brut. Peretti, wearing a pair of her signature teardrop earrings, asks me in Italian what sign I am. Scorpio, I say. "They like to suffer," she says with a throaty laugh. An ex-lover of hers was also a Scorpio.
People are forgotten so fast. I want to survive. If nothing else, Peretti exudes familiarity. This may stem in part from the ubiquitous photographs by Avedon and Newton from her early modeling days, a fantasy of bygone New York that now seems like ancient history (to her, too). Then there are the tales of cocaine-fueled dinner parties at Halston's townhouse and the temper tantrums at Studio 54 memorialized in Andy Warhol's diaries—all stories that Peretti happily verifies. But for me it was Peretti's fluid designs, her elevating sterling silver to a luxury material, her introducing accessible jewelry in the form of the $89 "Diamonds by the Yard" (which was actually Halston's idea), and her innovative brand campaigns that initially captured my attention, more than the '70s-era excess.
As I look back on my childhood, Tiffany's Blue Book and Peretti's singular viewpoint were as much a part of my education as any school text. My first razor was a Peretti design, and I still use it. "People are forgotten so fast. I want to survive," she tells me, reaching for another cigarette. That may be the reason she has been so prolific. Since 1974, Peretti has created more than 30 iconic jewelry and design collections for Tiffany.
Last year Elsa Peretti designs (for which she holds the trademark) accounted for eight percent of the company's net sales, or $328 million—in other words, a lot of money, especially for a line whose designs date back nearly half a century. In 2012, Tiffany renewed Peretti's contract (after a tense negotiation that included a one-time payout of $47.2 million) through 2032. When (if ?) it expires, she will be 92.
The reality, however, is that the relationship between Tiffany and Elsa Peretti is about more than just money. First of all, Peretti already has plenty. Her father Nando was one of Italy's most successful postwar industrialists, with a vast fortune. Her tumultuous relationship with her parents and siblings not withstanding (after her father died, control of his assets played out in the Italian courts and tabloids), she inherited much of it. But Tiffany has given her life purpose. "At 27 years old, Tiffany gave me the opportunity to travel and explore," she says. At that time Peretti visited craftsmen in Japan, China, and Europe and created some of her most renowned collections, including Bean, Open Heart, Mesh, Bone, and Zodiac, in signature materials like jade, lacquer, rattan, and, of course, sterling silver.
In the late 1970s, Peretti designed the Scorpion collection, an abstract take on the creatures. Though it's unclear whether the designs were inspired by actual scorpions she saw near her house in Sant Martí Vell, Spain, or by spurned lovers (such as that Scorpio), her ability to take forms from the natural world and unpack them to their essence remains her trademark. I always think people give me compliments for what I was, not for what I am now.
Now I am Tiffany. Don't expect to see many new creations, however. "I think the computer put a lot of people under terrible stress," she says. "People say the 1970s were fast. They're wrong. It was slow compared to today." That said, she suggests she may create some one-off designs. And for the foreseeable future she remains loyal to Tiffany, which has been rapidly expanding in Italy and is highly regarded there. She is, after all, a Taurus. "I always think people give me compliments for what I was, not for what I am now," she says. "Now I am Tiffany."
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