It’s been almost 40 years since Elsa Peretti launched her first collection at Tiffany. Yet many of the original pieces look as sexy and youthful today as they did back in 1974. Arguably one of the greatest designers—well, ever, Peretti creates jewelry and decorative objects that reflect her poetic sense of beauty, her wild imagination, her perfect sense of proportion, her passion for craftsmanship and her abiding confidence.
The legendary Italian designer, 72, briefly flirted with the idea of retiring last year and taking her copyrighted designs with her. The prospect would have dealt such a blow to Tiffany that the publicly traded company was obliged to report the situation to the Securities and Exchange Commission. Luckily she changed her mind and signed a new, 20-year contract with Tiffany in January. Here, Peretti sits down with us for a rare interview about her extraordinary career, her design process and her enduring style.
Your debut collection included pieces that are still popular today, like your Diamonds by the Yard necklaces and Bottle pendants. How did you come up with these designs?
I was a baby when I began, but I knew exactly what I wanted to wear myself. I became a jewelry designer because I knew how to do something with a pencil and sketch my ideas. My friends admired what I was doing. The kind of attitude then was, Why not?
Before you joined Tiffany, you were at the center of the fashion world as a model and jewelry designer working with Halston and Giorgio di Sant’Angelo. What was that like?
When I started with Halston, it was go-go-go fantastic. He loved my pieces, and they loved his clothes. It was great when he used my big belts in his fashion shows. I worked my ass off with him. He was working day or night, coke or no coke. We were going to Studio 54, but he was impeccable in everything. Halston gave me the discipline. He also gave me advice: when I started doing jewels that I thought were great but too expensive, he said, “Make small, medium and large.” It may sound simple, but it was very useful, and I have never forgotten it.
It’s interesting that you mention belts. You created the Whip belt in the ’80s and consider it one of your favorites.
It was that hot period in New York. Everyone was whipping themselves. It was not my thing, but the whip has a strange elegance around your waist.
And the umbrella with a handle similar to the belt buckle?
The umbrella handle is exactly like the silver on the Whip belt. There is a kind of drama when you open it. It is very feminine. You cannot put another person near you. You are just by yourself. I never carry it because I am afraid to forget it somewhere!
Your designs have a sculptural quality, like the Bone cuff, the way it undulates over the wrist bone. What was the genesis of that iconic piece?
It was done with the first craftsman I worked with, Señor Abad. He did the Bottle pendant too. I was so thin at the time, and I was designing it on my left wrist. Then there was a flash between us about the area around the wrist bone. Between the craftsman and me, there is something in the air.
How do your travels inspire your designs?
The inspiration sometimes comes immediately, and sometimes it is a memory. Sometimes it comes one year later. You cannot push it. You think about what you want to do. You think about the beauty and what you want to transmit. If I think about designing, I can’t design.
It is surprising to see lacquer hardwood bangles and necklaces among the diamonds, gold and silver at Tiffany. Was it difficult to persuade them to include these pieces?
I am a bull. I am Taurus. My will is awful. If I like something, there is nothing else. I was a pain in the neck. I still am a pain in the neck.
Your first home collection launched in the late ’70s. What is the relationship between jewelry and decorative objects?
I am jewelry and objects together. This is the Elsa Peretti name to me. It is a very good balance for me to try and create with the person in mind or with the space in mind—to imagine a bowl of fruit or something for water. It is a little bit yin and yang.
You’ve said the Padova silverware is among your favorite home objects. What do you like about it?
It is so beautiful and rich. The silver is divine. The silver gets excited when you polish it. Instead of putting them in a drawer, it should be used every day. I put it in the dishwasher! It is good to be around something all the time that you enjoy looking at.
You transformed many ordinary items into luxuries. One of your innovations was a silver razor handle that accepted the standard blades of plastic disposable razors.
I wanted the name Gillette written in my catalog. It was a big discussion. I considered the design prêt-à-porter.
And a lighter …
The lighter is mine! Mike [Kowalski, Tiffany's CEO] hates smoking, but a lighter is to light the fire, not only a cigarette. I never go without fire in my pocket.
You recently signed a new 20-year contract with Tiffany. Why did you decide to continue working?
I was ready to retire, but I felt responsible for all the craftsmen creating my designs. They know me; they know my way of doing things. It is going to be good. This contract for me is a possibility.