Fittingly, Ryan Murphy’s new Netflix series, Halston, is primarily based around its titular figure–influential American fashion designer Roy Halston Frowick. But a program about the life of the seminal milliner-turned-New York icon would be incomplete without also featuring Elsa Peretti, the Italian model and jewelry designer who was one of Halston’s closest friends.
In the series, Peretti is played by Rebecca Dayan, a French actress who has had supporting roles in films like The Childhood of a Leader, The Neon Demon, and Limitless. A staple of the Studio 54 crowd, Peretti eventually began creating jewelry, and became both renowned and tremendously successful for her sleek, sculpted designs like the bone cuff sold at Tiffany & Co.
“She’s such an incredible role model. We talk about ‘girl bosses’ and she was one of the first. She knew her worth, didn’t compromise, and created something new,” Dayan told Vogue in a conversation about playing Peretti. “I feel like younger generations don’t really know who she is, so hopefully, with this show, she’ll be recognized again.”
Ahead of watching Halston, here’s what you should know about Elsa Peretti.
Before Elsa Peretti became a jewelry designer, she was a model.
According to a 2014 profile of Peretti in Vanity Fair, she came from a wealthy Italian family that worked in the energy industry. However, she evidently clashed with them and eventually “the purse strings were cut” when she left home.
Following a brief detour in Barcelona, and time spent as a language teacher, Peretti landed in Manhattan and took up residence at a hotel on the Upper West Side. Though she apparently did not enjoy modeling, she found success in the mid-late ’60s. She was represented by high-end agency Wilhelmina, and walked for star designers like Charles James and Issey Miyake.
Some of the most famous photographs of Peretti were taken by her one-time romantic partner Helmut Newton, including several on a balcony with her dressed in a black bunny outfit and smoking a cigarette, recalling Playboy.
Halston and Peretti became close friends in the 1960s.
Her modeling career led Peretti to Halston, then a rising figure in the fashion world himself as he transitioned from being a women’s hat designer to creating his own full line of garments.
“Elsa was different from the other models,” Halston reportedly said, per Vanity Fair. “The others were clothes racks—you’d make them up, fix their hair, and then they’d put their blue jeans back on. But Elsa had style: she made the dress she was modeling her own.”
The duo was part of a chic Manhattan crowd that frequented the legendary Studio 54. Others spotted there included Andy Warhol, Bianca Jagger, Elizabeth Taylor, and Giorgio di Sant’ Angelo, among others.
It was to di Sant’ Angelo that Peretti first expressed a desire to design jewelry, something that came to define her professional life.
“The series also shows how Halston really believed in Elsa, pushed her to design and to push herself. Some have said that had Halston been straight, she would have been his great love,” Dayan told Vogue. “Their relationship was intense and competitive and, at the same time, they needed each other’s attention and validation.”
As detailed in the Vanity Fair piece, their bond was not without tension. In 1978, Peretti designed a popular perfume bottle for Halston and he reportedly offered her $25,000 or a sable fur coat. According to a passage in Steven Gaines’s Simply Halston, Peretti eventually threw the coat into a fire during a heated dispute at dinner over her meager compensation for the perfume bottle design and his difficulty being vulnerable.
“Halston was very aloof and cold. I wanted to get more personal with him. You never talked personally with him. The conversation was like ‘What are you wearing tonight?’ You know, at 12 o’clock at night, you don’t want to be speaking about clothes,” Peretti told Vanity Fair. “I said to him, ‘Your friendship means more to me than this f—ing coat,’ and then I threw it in the fire.'”
Peretti’s signature Tiffany & Co. designs were her Diamonds by the Yard collection and the bone cuff.
Initially, Peretti designed jewelry for Halston’s own line, focusing primarily on silver pieces. She gained popularity for her “simple, sensual, sculptural shapes,” and when she began working with Tiffany & Co., her work became even more well known. In 1979, she was the brand’s lead jewelry designer.
“Elsa brought out all these things—the bone bracelet I remember best. Everything was so sensual, so sexy. I just loved it. It was different from anything I’d ever seen, and I’d seen a lot. I’ve only really worn Peretti jewelry from then on,” Liza Minelli told Vanity Fair.
An Artnet piece acknowledging the 50th anniversary of the bone cuff said that, at one point, Peretti’s work accounted for roughly 10 percent of Tiffany’s yearly net sales. According to that feature, the bone cuff was made to accentuate the natural grace of a woman’s wrist, and drew inspiration from both Antonio Gaudi and Salvador Dalí.
“I have always been interested in the bone cuff’s mechanics and feel. Every jewelry piece should be as captivating and as comfortable to wear.” Peretti said, per Artnet.
Much of Peretti’s work is still being produced by Tiffany, with variants on her elegant Diamonds by the Yard necklace, bracelet, and earrings, as well as striking pieces inspired by snakes, scorpions, and starfish.
She died earlier in 2021 in the home she spent decades restoring.
Peretti passed away at 80 on March 21, 2021. The cause of death was not revealed.
She was at her home in Sant Martí Vell, a village in Catalonia, Spain. Per The New York Times, Peretti initially purchased a home in the town in 1968, and over the ensuing 50-plus years, she restored the dilapidated surrounding buildings. For a time, she wanted to create “a community for artisans” there, though that goal ultimately didn’t come to fruition.
“I was attracted to Sant Martí because it was contrary to everything in New York and my family. Here there was no sophistication. My first years, things were still in ruins, many of the houses didn’t have roofs, and I slept on a bench and washed myself on the stone floor,” she told Vanity Fair about what made her choose the town of fewer than 300 residents.
Though Peretti was in a number of prominent relationships, she didn’t marry, nor did she have children.
According to Vanity Fair, Peretti and her father reconciled before his death in 1977, and she used the large inheritance she received to create the Nando Peretti Foundation (now the Nando and Elsa Peretti Foundation). The organization supports a myriad of projects around the world, including sustainability and animal welfare in India, an orphanage in Tanzania, and funding medical research in Italy.
With Peretti being featured prominently in Halston, hopefully a new generation will be able to learn about her singular life and outsized impact on the jewelry industry.
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