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BY DESIGN : Q & A: ELSA PERETTI : Creating is her passion. The Tiffany designer is famous for her jewelry, but she also thinks big. As in . . . she's restored buildings.

December 01, 1994|MAUREEN SAJBEL / SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Jewelry designer Elsa Peretti's deep voice comes across the phone like honey. She's calling from Italy, where she has a home in Rome and another in a 13th-Century tower by the sea at Porto Ercole. "The farther you go, the better you hear. It's amazing," she remarks.

Peretti will arrive in Los Angeles today as an honored guest of "Divine Design '94," a Sunday night gala benefiting the AIDS charities Project Angel Food and DIFFA. Designer Richard Tyler, broadcaster Elsa Klensch, director Tim Burton and interior designer Rose Tarlow will also be honored.

Peretti, 54, is also celebrating her 20th anniversary as a designer for Tiffany & Co. Among her best-known works are fluid necklaces and earrings shaped like hearts and beans, diamonds by the yard and a wide range of objects for the table. The ubiquitous Halston perfume bottle is also hers. The Tiffany designs, priced from $50 to $29,000, are second only to engagement rings in sales, ringing up close to $80 million worldwide annually.

Here, Peretti talks about coming to Los Angeles, her work, her time spent in New York and her museum in the small Spanish village of Sant Marti Vell, where she has restored 10 buildings since 1969.

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Question: How long has it been since you've visited Los Angeles?

Answer: A long time. In fact, the last time I was there, I was in a very nice health farm called Pritikin in Santa Monica. I will ask my companion, Stefano, how long it's been. . . . At least 10 years ago. We rented a car and went up and down the coast, which was fantastic.

Q: Why did you say yes to this event?

A: A big friend of mine, Berry Berenson, asked me. And I think it's a very good cause.

Q: Your museum is filled with a mix of art and common objects. An Andy Warhol painting is next to a collection of bird cages. What was the guiding principal?

A: To show what gave me inspiration. And also mix it up with my American life. Andy was very near me in those years in America. The bird cages were also very near me because each time I was traveling to the Orient, I bought bird cages, with the birds inside. I was working a lot in Hong Kong and was very lonely in the hotel. I always had my birds. Bird cages are nothing of incredible value, but I like them.

Q: The American artists and designers represented in the museum were your close friends during your years as a model and later as a designer. It's sad to see that so many--Warhol, Halston, Giorgio di Sant'Angelo--have died.

A: You got the point. It's terrible.

Q: What is your life like now without these friends?

A: I feel very lonely. Now I have very few friends left. I cannot even think about it. I really miss them. We were working together and showing my things with their things. It was really fantastic. I always learned by that. Now I see another type of friends who are very different from the people I was used to seeing, the designers. I feel a little alien, because they are people with children. Seeing the people I saw without wives was very different. We were talking jewelry, talking material, talking shapes, talking colors.

Q: Do you still have an apartment in New York?

A: Yes. That was Halston's apartment a long time ago. New York is very good to touch base.

Q: You have said, "I'm not very productive." The opposite seems true.

A: I've been productive for 15, 16 years. I made a lot of designs with a lot of care. I don't have the feeling that I need to add a lot to my collection, because I have an incredibly wide range of things. This is a part of the secret of my things, that they are still valid. When I feel a need, I do something more.

Q: Have you been designing much lately?

A: For me, to put together my museum and all my remembrances was a big effort mentally, physically and monetarily. I pushed myself very hard. Now I am in need of new gasoline, like a car. Maybe from Los Angeles, I'll just take a month off and go to someplace where I can be on a beach and be with my companion and just scribble and pick up rocks and do the stupid things that for me are very good.

Q: What of your own jewelry do you wear?

A: Now, a belt with a silver heart, a little pair of platinum heart earrings and a little Madonna around my neck that I've had for a long time.

Q: You've talked about designing jewelry for older women. Are you still thinking about this?

A: Yes, just small, platinum things. I keep my hair gray, so I like silver and platinum. For women who dye their hair, they can wear whatever they want.

Q: Other than color and small size, what makes something right for an older woman?

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