“Jewelry is not fashion. It has to last, not be discarded as soon as something else comes along.”
Elsa Peretti, world class jewelry designer, has been with Tiffany & Co more than 40 years. At 76 years of age, her life has been an epic adventure. She ran in the same circles of art giants such as Dali, Warhol and Helmut Newton. She was a regular in the Studio 54 scene of New York in the 1970’s but unlike many of the people from that era, she is still with us today, still healthy, and able to continue contributing her genius to the world. What separates Elsa from the rest is her staying power, in life and in art.
It’s no secret that the appeal of Elsa’s creations lie in the timeless quality that she gives them. Her capacity to infuse inanimate objects with such life is, of course, an ability that any designer covets. Just like her creations, Elsa’s secret to her inspiration is uncomplicated but not easy to copy. Her indomitable success as a designer is due in large part to her passionate approach to the archetypes that surround all of us, all the time. Elsa continually exercises an ability to humble herself and release the preconceived notions that make most of us believe that the simple things are mundane, played out, or uninteresting.
“Style is to be simple. I like to push myself to achieve a certain quality and eliminate the excess detail.”
Elsa can use something as seemingly prosaic as a torus shape, a teardrop, or a bean to remind us just how beautiful the world is. This is the job of the artist. But Elsa’s work isn’t confined to the simplest of forms. She is always open to the next bit of inspiration that day to day life will bring. When she encounters scorpions in Spain, her first thought is not an exterminator, but rather an appreciation of their “fascinating mechanics.” This experience leads to the creation of a scorpion necklace. When a Texan friend gives her a snake rattle as a good luck charm, she doesn’t stow it away in a dusty box on a shelf. She carries it in her purse for months until the day the rattle’s intricate design inspires her to create a necklace that takes the world by storm. A horse girth inspires the the design of a belt, the curves of the human vertebra become a bracelet, the desire to keep a single flower alive inspires a vase amulet to be worn on a necklace. The experience of a sunset in Jaipur India, inspired Elsa’s Mesh, a flexible, almost fluid fabric woven from precious metal that revolutionized and scandalized the fashion world.
Elsa’s characteristically intense individuality is a major factor in her staying power and unique creativity. When she was 21 she emancipated herself from the constricting environment of her rich, conservative Roman family, going so far as to send a formal letter to her father. From there she embarked on the first chapter of what would be a lifelong adventure.
During an altercation with a friend, Elsa caused a scene at Studio 54 that prompted Andy Warhol to comment, “It’s enough to make you want to stay home for the rest of your life.” This says at least as much about Andy as it does Elsa. For Warhol, it reveals his neurotic need to avoid direct conflict. For Elsa, it reveals her strength of character, passion, and unwillingness to compromise. When Studio 54 became too dangerous for Elsa’s health, she exercised her power of emancipation again, moving to Spain and separating from perils that sex and drugs were creating for Americans in the 70’s and 80s. Elsa has never been married, another example of just how important sovereignty is to her life. In 2012, this quality had not softened and Elsa was considering emancipating herself from Tiffany’s after decades of working together. In the end, Elsa showed that her relationship with Tiffany & Co. was one of the few things from which she did not have the desire to be freed. They were able to forge a new relationship and sign a 20 year agreement.
Elsa’s Mesh creations are an example of her tenacity and uncompromising spirit. She was told it was impossible to create the Mesh the way she had envisioned. But Elsa would not accept this answer. With the help of Samuel Beizer, Chairman of the Jewelry Dept. at Rhode Island Institute of Technology, they were able to find ancient machines that were used to create a similar mesh some 80 to 90 years previous. The machines were languishing in storage and no one knew how to work them. That didn’t stop Samuel and Elsa. They searched and eventually found an 80 year old man who had worked the machines when he was young.
Recently, Elsa agreed to a photo shoot with photographer Eric Bowman. Now in her 70s, Elsa told him “No retouching. This is how I am.”
On the opening day of one of Elsa’s exhibitions, 80 year old lacquer worker, Shimofuri-san of Kyoto, who had collaborated with Elsa on projects like the Negoro bracelet, faxed her a poem that he had written which perfectly encapsulates Elsa’s life and art.
A golden carp, swam against
the muddy torrent
a thousand miles upstream
met the barrier of a water fall,
struggled, and suddenly leapt clear,
transformed into a shining dragon
to fly free into the translucent air