"Style," Elsa Peretti says, "is to be simple"—an ironic statement from a designer described as "the most complicated person I know. She's volatile, explosive, obstinate, and as difficult as any artist trying to achieve perfection"—according to Tiffany's vice president and long-time Peretti colleague, Frank Arcaro (from the Toronto Star, 2000). He adds: "But she is also charming and kind and very, very shy."
Peretti can deliver a brusque maxim in her husky voice with a Chanel imperiousness and a Montesquieu-like incisiveness. Her knowledge of style is perhaps so vivid because it comes intuitively from a career in modeling, friendships with fashion designers, interest in sculptural adornment, and a fascination with the crafts that go into jewelry. Her quest is for expressive, perfect form, even if it happens to look imperfect at first. Touch—the hand of making and of holding— is foremost. She has brilliantly expanded the materials and repertory of jewelry, ensuring that it is a modern tradition but also guaranteeing it preserves special crafts of the past. Her art evades any particular place in the world, drawing upon Japanese traditions, surrealism, and modernist design; it is an art so vagrant its only home is in the heart.
Peretti explores nature with a biologist's acumen and an artist's discrimination. The simplicity of her forms resides in the fact that she selects the quintessential form from among those found in nature, never settling on the median or most familiar, but striving for the essence. Her hearts, for instance, are never of a trite Valentine's Day familiarity; rather, they cleave to the hand with shaped, hand-held warmth. That the heart necklace, described by Tiffany's Melvyn Kirtley as "a wonderful free-form heart," hangs "on a woven mesh chain" in asymmetry as the chain passes through the middle, gives it the quirk of love and the aberration of art that Peretti admires. John Loring of Tiffany's and editor of Tiffany's 20th Century: A Portrait of American Style, on ABC's Good Morning America television show described Peretti's floating heart as "probably [her] best-known piece of jewelry." Additionally, her 18-carat gold mesh bracelet flows like water and "wears like silk," according to her fans.
Reminding us that Chanel never forgot she was a peasant, Peretti too never forgets the simple things of life. Her suite of beans is ineffably ordinary, yet they are extraordinary in their craft, in their scaling to hand, and in their finest materials. Her bottles are common; Peretti transfigures the crude practicality into an elegant simplicity. "The design," said Peretti, "is full of common sense. Of course I'm slow. I have to crystallize a form, find the essence."
In June 1974, Peretti joined Tiffany & Company. That year, her first collection, featuring "sinuous," "sensual," and "sculptural" shapes and forms, debuted, causing a sensation in the accessories world. Sixteen years later, in the 1990 catalogue of Elsa Perretti: Fifteen of My Fifty with Tiffany, Richard Martin wrote: "A transcendental aspect haunts Peretti's work; she hints at our affinity to nature even as she plucks the perfect form from the cartload of nature's abundance and art's options. Peretti returns us in her absolute objects to a Garden of Paradise. There, all form has its lingering memory and every shape is the definitive best."
Peretti's sensibility is deeply touched by her professional and personal friendships with Halston and Georgio di Sant'Angelo, no less so after the death of both designers. As a model, Peretti had known both. In 1999 she explained how it all started to the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, "In 1969, I found a tiny flower vase in a junk shop and was inspired to design a bottle on a chain for designer Giorgio di Sant'Angelo," from whom Peretti drew a spirit of incorporating regional materials in an aggregate at once a composite of many sources and a refinement of them in modern terms. She went on to design belts for Halston—whose minimalism is a touchstone for Peretti, not only in the opportunity for her demonstrative forms to stand out in the ensemble of such simple luxury in dress but also in the obdurate minimalism of her own design—before joining Tiffany's.
Generous in acknowledging such designers and in expressing her pleasure in cooperating with craftspeople in the fulfillment of her work, Peretti cannot disguise her own remarkable ability, which she sometimes passes off as craft, to distill form and ideas. The sabotage of her belts is that their sources are in the stable, not in haberdashery: Peretti's attention in 1969 to a leather horse girth inspired a belt without mechanisms, working by the unadorned looping to fulfill the function of the belt. Her tableware is fit for a peasant table, before chopsticks or other utensils: she has created the perfect setting for Picasso's Blind Man's Meal to transform it to Tiffany grace without ever compromising its rudimentary, manual presence.
Characteristically, when Peretti confronted diamonds, she flouted convention and offered the affordable—and revolutionary—"Diamonds by the Yard," giving even the desired stone a degree of access and of animation. Of that insouciant success, a landmark of 1970s design, Peretti says modestly, "My objective is to design according to one's financial possibilities." Few would earlier have imagined a leading jewelry designer to come up with such a frank and sensitive view of the product or the consumer. In fact, it is one of Peretti's triumphs to restore to jewelry a vitality it had lost in the 1960s and early 1970s.
"My love for bones has nothing macabre about it," Peretti says. Indeed, Peretti's sensibility is one of unmitigated joy. Her fruits are prime produce; her sea life is a miracle of abundance; her scorpions and snakes are never scary but seem instead to be mementos of exhilaration; her handbags long to be clutched; her angels and crosses evoke respect for religion making it "touchable" by the masses; even her teardrops adapted for earrings, pendants, and even pen clips are never melancholic. They are tears of joy created by a designer who zealously celebrates life, and enjoys it, as evidenced by her "Alphabet," a series of sterling silver pendants in loopy representations of the alphabet.
Her fragrances are no different. For Tiffany, Peretti released a fragrance named after herself, described as "a spicy woodsy fragrance composed of narcissus, wood, magnolia, the Japanese flower, daphne, nutmeg, and pepper." She also designed a beautiful cobalt blue glass heart-shaped paperweight reminiscent of her jewelry hearts; a crystal apple candy dish, which floats like an iridescent bubble on the table; lacquered pens that evoke images of chopsticks and yet can be worn like jewelry; "Thumbprint" pottery bowls and glasses with a very oriental flavor; sterling silver punch ladles; candlesticks and candle snuffers; wine coasters; and many other items.
In 1996 the Council of Fashion Designers of America named her the Accessories Designer of the Year. The same year, one of Peretti's belts showed up in the Jackie Kennedy Onassis estate sale, going, with another belt, for $7,475. Peretti's career and designs have inspired a whole new generation of accessory designers.