In art and design, there is an abiding notion that less is more. From Leonardo da Vinci and Vincent van Gogh, to Frank Lloyd Wright and David Hockney, scores of famous artists and designers through the ages have expressed their admiration for this creed, and acknowledged just how difficult it is to execute well. As design guru Steve Jobs summed it up: “Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple.”
So, to be able to come up with not one but many uncomplicated designs that are artistically exquisite and commercially successful – that’s a remarkable feat. And that is why Elsa Peretti is considered one of the most esteemed, game-changing jewellery designers of modern times.
Born in 1940 in Florence, Italy, Peretti had a degree in interior design and started out working for an architect in Milan before venturing into modelling in Barcelona in the ’60s. From there, she moved to New York to further her career, where she modelled for Halston – the fashion designer known for his clean, minimalist creations and Jackie Kennedy’s famous pillbox hat.
Around that time, Peretti also began designing things, the very first of which were a heart-shaped belt buckle and a flask pendant. By the ’70s, she was enjoying considerable success and in 1974, the Elsa Peretti Collection made its debut at Tiffany & Co., selling out within the first day.
The next decade or so saw her add more feathers to her cap. For her designs for the American fine jeweller, she was named Accessories Designer of the Year by the Council of Fashion Designers of America in 1986, and also received the President’s Scholar Award from the Rhode Island School of Design.
Removing all redundant embellishments and frills (she once told trade publication Women’s Wear Daily that “style is to be simple”), she created smooth, fluid shapes both sculptural and sensuous. For inspiration, she looked to nature and life, be it the curves of a humble bean, the elegant form of a teardrop, the tail of a rattlesnake, or the segments of a scorpion.
She also drew heavily on personal experiences and memories. Her instantly recognisable bone-like cuffs and silverware, for instance, were inspired by regular childhood visits with her nanny to a 17th-century Capuchin church that was decorated with human bones. This in turn fostered her fascination with seemingly macabre objects.
The prototype for her whimsical Bottle necklaces was a flask for carrying a gardenia, which she had designed in Portofino in the 1960s. And the idea for one of her most popular motifs of all, the Open Heart, came about when she noticed a heart-shaped void within a sculpture by British sculptor Henry Moore, known for his large, rounded, stylised creations with open spaces within them.
“I like to push myself to achieve a certain quality, eliminate the excess detail. I always want a high degree of purity,” she said of her design ethos, which aims to crystallise shapes into their purest possible renditions. The results have been variously described as familiar, archetypal, transcendent, sublime, even playful or whimsical in some instances.
But perhaps the main reason why Peretti’s designs have endured and achieved evergreen hit status comes down to something as uncomplicated as the creations themselves – utility. Her jewellery is practical, unpretentious and effortlessly glamorous; their simplicity lending them a universal appeal and versatility. It doesn’t matter if you’re wearing a distressed T-shirt or an evening gown; aged 16 or 60 – they would complement anything and still look good years down the road. As Peretti said: “Good lines and good forms are timeless.”
This story first appeared in the July 2015 issue of Female magazine, out on newsstands now.