Few women have lived a life as glamorous as Marella Agnelli’s. The only daughter of Neapolitan royalty, she was educated in Paris, married the head of one of Italy’s most successful companies, counted New York and European society members among her closest friends, and by the age of 36 already had been named to the International Best Dressed List Hall of Fame.
Together with her husband, Fiat chairman Gianni Agnelli, Marella also was among the world’s most-photographed women, and quite often in those images, the celebrated style icon can be seen wearing one necklace in particular, a lengthy, multi-strand design featuring ruby and emerald beads and pearls, stationed between diamond- and enamel-accented balls of 22-karat gold. The piece was crafted at India’s famed Gem Palace, its beads taken from a belt once worn by a maharaja.
“Gianni Agnelli was visiting my grandfather one day in 1955, and he saw the beads and asked whether some of them could be strung into a necklace for his wife,” explains Samir Kasliwal, partner, creative director and eighth-generation family member of the Jaipur-based Gem Palace. “The belt had been made by my family, and at one point my grandfather bought it back—he had been buying some pieces to save them for a Gem Palace museum, while with others he thought about redesigning them.”
That belt fell into the latter category, a decision helped by the fact that the Agnellis were valued Gem Palace clients, who would stop in Jaipur to see Samir’s grandfather, Lakshmi Kumar Kasliwal, and later his father, Sanjay Kasliwal, whenever the jet-setting couple visited India. Whether Marella loved the necklace because of its origins, its multitude of gemstones, or because it had been a spontaneous gift from her husband, she indeed wore it often: on vacation with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, to Malcolm Forbes’s 70th birthday party in Morocco in 1989, at a New Yorker event in 1994, where she was photographed alongside Oscar de la Renta and to a variety of galas and fundraisers.
Fast-forward to the spring of 2019, when Samir was cleaning out his father’s office after his passing. Inside the safe was a nondescript box, and as soon as Samir opened it, he recognized the beads inside. “I understood right away that they were from the same piece as Marella Agnelli’s necklace,” he says. (Marella also had passed away a few months prior, in February 2019, 16 years after Gianni’s death in 2003.)
“I was pregnant at the time, so I wasn’t in the office, but I remember Samir calling me to tell me what he had found,” says Shalini Kasliwal, Samir’s sister and the president of Sanjay Kasliwal, the U.S. arm of Gem Palace. “It was a pretty thrilling discovery, and I think we both knew right away what we wanted to do with them.”
Almost a year after that box of precious beads was found, the Kasliwal siblings have unveiled their tribute to Marella Agnelli: a pair of necklaces that take their cue from the original design. Samir and Shalini have christened them “the Last Swan Necklaces,” a name inspired by Truman Capote’s affectionate term for his elegant coterie of female friends, a group of “swans” that in addition to Marella included Babe Paley, Slim Keith, Lee Radziwill, Gloria Guinness and C.Z. Guest.
Requiring roughly five months each to craft in Gem Palace’s workshop, both pieces are shorter than Marella’s necklace, and that’s by design, Shalini says. “The shorter length felt more modern,” she notes. “But we kept them long enough so you could still double them, as she liked to do. Marella would wear them with formal dresses, or more casually with a shirt, and we wanted that same feeling with these.”
While the two necklaces look similar, they differ in their composition, with one totaling 2,628 carats of rubies, emeralds, pearls and diamonds, and the other totaling 3,242 carats (other than total carats, the split between rubies and emeralds is the key variance). The two necklaces will sell for $80,000 each and currently reside half a world away from each other, with one at the Sanjay Kasliwal boutique on Madison Avenue, and the other at Gem Palace in Jaipur. “The one in India, we may want to keep it for exhibition purposes,” Samir says.
Clients, however, may have a different idea in mind. “I mostly take care of the U.S. market, and I’ve gotten a lot of requests,” Shalini says. “Collectors are definitely interested; the assistant of one sent an email, requesting more photos.”
“While we’ve been talking, someone else texted me to ask about them,” Samir adds.
Neither necklace will leave its safe anytime soon, of course, due to the current stay-at-home orders. “In India, we’re in a 21-day lockdown right now, with all the borders closed, which I think is a very good move,” Samir says.
Both siblings are looking forward to the day when this next generation of an iconic necklace can be worn and enjoyed. As for the original? “Marella had a few grandkids, and we know some of them,” Shalini says. “I have a feeling that piece will stay in their family.”