Two Richard Avedon photographs immediately come to mind when I hear the name Marella Agnelli. The first, a 1953 portrait of the Neapolitan princess and wife of Fiat chair Gianni Agnelli, was taken at Avedon’s studio in New York. There she is, almost bare, all alabaster skin and neck. (And the neck! If you have ever wondered where the concept of Truman Capote’s Swans was hatched, it was with this image).
The other portrait was taken later, in 1976. The 1953 image is the definitive one—the one that hung at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for its Avedon retrospective—but in 1976 Avedon photographed Agnelli in “the necklace.”
Gianni had scoured the Gem Palace, in Jaipur, looking for something unique.
The jewel, a torsade of rubies and emeralds and pearls, had been purchased years earlier. “I have always loved a photograph of me in front of the Orvieto Cathedral, in Umbria, shot by my friend Wanda Gawronsk,” she recalled once. “In it I am wearing a necklace that Gianni gave to me in 1955 during a trip to India with his sister Cristiana and her husband, Brando Brandolini. Gianni, who loved buying jewelry, had scoured the Gem Palace, in Jaipur, looking for something unique. His eyes had finally stopped on several long strings of rubies and emeralds originally used as a decoration by the Maharaja of Jaipur, and he had them re-strung as a necklace.”
Gianni Agnelli, Marella Agnelli, Oscar de la Renta and Annette Reed attend Malcolm Forbes’ 70th Birthday Celebration on August 19, 1989 at Palais Mendoub in Tangier, Morocco.
Ron GalellaGetty Images
Agnelli would become one of the famed patrons of the Gem Palace, a centuries-old source for some of the most important gems in the world, run by the Kasliwal family. Judging from images—and there are thousands of the woman Avedon called one of the most beautiful he ever photographed—Marella Agnelli may have put the necklace away for a few decades after it was first bought.
It came back with a vengeance later in her life when it became something of a signature. There she is at Malcolm Forbes’ birthday party in Morocco in 1989 in pale pink silk and the ruby Indian beads. And again wearing them with black sequins standing next to Oscar de la Renta at a New York benefit in 1991, and with black velvet at a party for The New Yorker in 1994.
Marella Agnelli and Oscar de la Renta in New York, 1991
Ron Galella, Ltd.Getty Images
Agnelli died last year at the age of 91. The moment was defined as the passing of the Last Swan. Not too long after, there was a discovery in Jaipur. Historic beads from the original Agnelli lot were found in in a sealed box at The Gem Palace.
Sanjay Kasliwal then set to work handcrafting two new necklaces, utilizing the remaining stones while drawing inspiration from the original design. The result are two pieces he calls The Last Swan Necklaces.
They differ slightly from each other. One has 16 carats of diamonds, 1,826 carats of rubies, 626 carats of emeralds and 160 carats of pearls. The other has 15 carats of diamonds, 2,530 carats of rubies, 534 carats of emeralds and 163 carats of pearls. They both contain stones from that same historic lot, the one Gianni Agnelli spotted on a trip to India in 1955.
Two necklaces of similar design, one of which is shown here, have been made from the same collection of antique stones that Gianna Agnelli selected for Marella’s necklace in 1955.
Courtesy Gem Lab
But it seems you never know what might turn up at Gem Palace. One day you might open an old sealed box and find Marella Agnelli’s rubies, the next you might turn a page in yellowing guest ledger and spot Jackie Kennedy’s signature. The First Lady (and great friend of Marella Agnelli—pictures of them vacationing together are documents of style and taste) also visited the Gem Palace and saw something she liked.
Attached to the ledger Kasliwal found a letter from the Embassy dated May 10, 1962. “Many thanks,” the never-before-seen note says, “I had the pleasure of taking the bracelet back personally to Mrs. Kennedy and needless to say, she was delighted with it. I am sure she will continue to wear it with much pleasure. Yours faithfully John Kenneth Galbraith.”
The Last Swan necklaces are available at Sanjay Kasliwal.
Marella Agnelli and Jacqueline Kennedy in Amalfi, 1962