British Museum collection boosted by gift from Tiffany & Co.

Objects to be displayed in Room 2 from 1 May 2009, admission free

The British Museum collects modern and contemporary material worldwide, within many areas of human activity, both to build on the Museum’s strengths by adding to those areas in which it has traditionally collected and to show how modern objects respond to the cultures represented in its historical collections. The British Museum has received a recent generous gift of Elsa Peretti-designed jewellery, accessories and tableware from Tiffany & Co. The collection will go on temporary display in the Museum from 1 May.

Many of Peretti’s objects grow out of the traditions of different cultures across the world, adapted by Peretti in a highly individual way. To make this connection, objects from South East Asia and from the ancient world are shown alongside Peretti’s creations, whether historic lacquer from Japan, or Early Christian pottery pilgrim flasks from  Asia Minor. The work of Elsa Peretti demonstrates the resonance today of these ancient traditions. Modern design is rarely shown in the context of world cultures of all periods; this display will encourage a different approach to such objects and demonstrate that they can combine superb craftsmanship and symbolic meaning in a modern age.

Born in Florence, Italy in 1940, Peretti studied interior design in Rome, but made her name as a fashion model in Barcelona, Spain, before moving to New York in the 1960s. There she turned to design, creating jewellery for a handful of top fashion designers – Halston, Oscar de la Renta, Giorgio di Sant’Angelo and, since 1974, Tiffany & Co. For Tiffany she has designed personal ornaments and tableware, in silver, gold, lacquer, bamboo basketry and glass.

Examples of the work on display include Peretti’s silver candlesticks inspired by the human bones from the Capuchin crypt at Santa Maria della Concezione in Rome. Her silver tablewares are made in Spain and in Italy, while her glass vessels are hand made in time-honoured Venetian methods by master glass-blowers from the Archimede Seguso company in Murano. Among the personal ornaments, Peretti’s bamboo bag is made by a master bamboo weaver in Japan. Her rock crystal scent-bottle echoes Chinese snuff-bottles of the 17th or 18th century and is carved in Hong Kong; alongside it are rock-crystal samples showing the stages in achieving the form from a single lump of stone.  Peretti’s infinitely supple mesh scarf, made of knitted gold links, revives the fine metal mesh used for evening bags in the early 20th century.

The Peretti display will sit alongside a temporary display which also highlights the theme of cultural dynamism in a rapidly changing modern world.  ‘Continuity and Change’ will showcase contemporary objects shaped by new tastes and trends, cross-cultural influences and adoption of mediums, techniques and ideas which originate from different parts of an increasingly smaller world. The display is treated from the perspective of non-western cultures and all the objects are from the Museum’s own wide-ranging modern and contemporary collections. Each object tells a story of cultural survival, adaptation or radical breaks with the past in form, meaning or both. Thus a fish-shaped charm made from a tinfoil biscuit wrapper in Egypt, whilst made from modern materials reflects the ancient tradition of fish as symbols of fertility and the design of ancient Korean ceremonial stands is a continuing source of inspiration to the artist Cho Chung Hyun. His modern vases reflect the design of these objects, but are purely decorative. 

For more information or images please contact the Press Office on +44 (0)20 7323 8394 or

Notes to Editors

  • The Museum’s modern European and American collections comprise design classics from Christopher Dresser’s electroplated metalwork to Marianne Brandt’s Bauhaus tea-infuser, and from hand-made Venetian glass by artists such as Barovier, to mass-produced American ceramic dinnerwares by Russel Wright. These objects have been assembled since the late 1970s, and complement the V&A’s holdings in this area. A catalogue was published in 1991 (J. Rudoe, Decorative Arts 1850-1950. A catalogue of the British Museum collection, revised 1994). Many of Peretti’s pieces for Tiffany have already become the design classics of the present day. The collaboration between Peretti, her craftsmen and Tiffany is a remarkable instance of the international basis on which contemporary design is conducted. This gift will make it available for future generations.  Tiffany has its roots as an American company but these objects were almost all made in Spain, Italy and Japan. Other examples of  modern European and American objects may be seen in the Museum’s twentieth-century gallery (Room 48) on the upper floor of the Museum.
  • Modern and contemporary objects are acquired for the British Museum’s Asian, African, American, Oceanic and European collections and collections of prints, drawings, medals and coins worldwide.