Elsa Peretti (1940-2021)

Elsa Peretti wearing a few of her own designs

Last week we said farewell to jewelry designer Elsa Peretti, who died at her home near Barcelona on March 18.

It’s going to sound incredibly pretentious, but I’ll say it anyway: I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know who Elsa Peretti was. At least, I knew about her jewelry line for Tiffany when I was still very young, because I started trying to read The New York Times and my mother’s magazines as soon as I knew how to read.

I learned about the rest of Peretti’s life and career later—the early modeling days, the Studio 54 years, her brilliant success as a businesswoman who always held the trademark to her own name and her own designs.

Also, my mother owns a Peretti bud vase necklace, which she wore for occasional nights out (although not to any nightclubs) when I was young.

Actual documentation of me partying like it’s 1979 (or 2019, for that matter)

I borrowed that same necklace to wear to the opening of Studio 54: Night Magic on March 11, 2020, and it’s still the central detail in my memory of that stressful swirl of an evening. We were all trying to celebrate and carry on as though everything was going to be all right, nothing to see here, although we’d been gradually realizing over the previous few days that this wasn’t going to be the case.

I was planning on wearing the Peretti necklace to assorted other Studio 54 events over the following three months. Unfortunately, the Museum and the show closed about twenty-four hours after the end of this party, and (like most museums around the city) didn’t reopen until September.

One of many Halston perfume ads in late-70s magazines: Vogue, September 1977 (my photo)

My interest in wearing Peretti jewelry to this opening party went beyond disco cosplay. (Discosplay?) I’d been doing research for my upcoming talk on perfumes of the late 1970s by reading through bound issues of fashion-and-beauty magazines, and I came across ad after ad for Halston’s signature fragrance (1975) in its biomorphic Peretti-designed bottle. (Halston and Peretti were close companions in those days.)

Peretti’s design for Halston is one of those rare perfume bottles that capture something about the spirit and style of their time yet also manage to look just as fresh now as they did at the time of their creation.

Vogue, December 1977 (my photo)

I was also keeping an eye out for other trends in fashion and accessories that might tie into my discussion of disco-era perfumes, so I was delighted when I spotted this quarter-page feature on small perfume bottles meant to be carried along for an evening on the town.

Two of the three are Peretti designs: a small crystal bottle with a lapis lazuli cap and a curvy sterling silver bottle-pendant (with a stopper) that was a “sister” to her earlier bud vase necklace.

(I’ve left both these photos uncropped because it’s important to me to share that I do research “by hand” using pre-digital sources.)

Elsa Peretti at the Tiffany flagship store on 5th Avenue

As a teen spending lots of time in New York, I looked forward to any opportunity to peek into the Tiffany flagship (usually with my mother). The store was much quieter and more austerely furnished than it is nowadays, yet it was also more conducive to browsing.

I never spotted Ms. Peretti, alas, although I did enjoy looking at her various jewelry designs grouped together at one counter. By this time she had also branched out into tablewares and other small home items.

Nowadays, Tiffany offers dozens and dozens of Peretti items across its various departments, but you can still purchase a Peretti bottle necklace in silver or gold, with a choice of black jade or turquoise for the stopper.

Advertisement in the Los Angeles Times, November 29, 1981

You can also still purchase a rock crystal perfume bottle designed by Peretti in 1981. At the time, the bottle was sold with a half-ounce of pure perfume created just for this purpose. Information about the actual scent is hard to come by; apparently it was a blend of florals, spices, and vetiver, but that’s a very general description, of course.

Various news stories noted the high price ($450) of this set, but some also admitted that you were buying a piece of modern design rather than a typical perfume bottle. Only one thousand pieces were produced for the initial launch, and one now belongs to the collections of the British Museum.

Peretti in her Manhattan apartment, photographed by Horst, 1976

I love this photo of Peretti at home in 1976, one of several taken by Horst P. Horst. I’m assuming that some staging went into this session, but the scene is still refreshingly casual and imperfect: the magazines stacked up along the wall, the trailing lamp cords, the ordinary box of Kleenex pushed amidst the Halston perfume factice and the two Patou perfume bottles (Joy? 1000?) and the tray of the designer’s own jewelry.

I hope that Peretti is enjoying her afterlife with similar glamorous ease, perhaps sitting down next to Halston to catch up on all the gossip, or else just lighting a cigarette and sketching out a design for some celestial jewelry.

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