Inspired by Truman Capote’s famed swans – an exclusive group of influential society ladies – Sotheby’s has identified a few glamorous contemporary jet-setters called the White Baaz, as James Reginato reports.
May 22, 2017
uring the second half of the 20th century, a group of supremely stylish women – among them Marella Agnelli, Babe Paley, Gloria Guinness, C Z Guest and Lee Radziwill – captured the world’s imagination with their glamour and savoir faire. It was their friend Truman Capote who first codified this group and came up with a name for its members: they were swans. In 1959, the writer officially christened them in Observations, Richard Avedon’s book of portraits of influential personalities (among them Pablo Picasso, Katharine Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe), for which Capote wrote the text. Choosing to title the chapter on these society women “A Gathering of Swans,” Capote launched them, and the term swans, into posterity.
“The international covey of swans drifting across our pages,” wrote Capote, included some lovely young girls – “cygnets,” as he called them. But the highest admiration was reserved for a certain type of mature woman who, the author declared, “if she has kept buoyant the weight of her gifts, been faithful to the vows a swan must…,” she “will have earned an audience all-kneeling.” That achievement, Capote continued, represented “the involvement of an artist, one whose sole creation is her perishable self.”
In the ensuing decades, the swans flew and swam together in tight formation, sometimes the best of friends, sometimes the best of rivals. In his 2013 book Swans: Legends of the Jet Society (Assouline), Nicholas Foulkes recounts a classic example of their perfidious relationships. Gloria often invited Babe and her husband, CBS network tycoon William S Paley, to join her on the Guinness yacht, Calypso. One summer, she expressly told Babe not to bother bringing any smart clothes or jewellery, as this would be a low-key season. Taking her friend at her word, Babe complied. However, a few hours after coming aboard, Gloria emerged from her stateroom dripping in gems, to Babe’s great dismay. And so, leaving nothing to chance, the following summer Babe emptied the contents of her safe into her suitcase. “Really, darling,” asked Gloria in subtly feigned astonishment at the selection of gems Babe had brought, “Why all the jewellery? We’re just on the boat.”
Entertaining and inspiring as these women were, their private lives could be fraught with drama, which Capote revealed in “La Côte Basque 1965,” an excerpt of a novel in progress. (The swans, betrayed, found the story a bit too thinly veiled.)
Half a century later, the world and society have thoroughly changed, and today’s generation has its own style setters. With the swans’ fabulousness in mind, Sotheby’s recently approached a group of distinguished women who represent what it means to be a glamorous society figure today, inviting these modern-day swans to be the White Baaz. Andres White Correal, a senior director in Sotheby’s Jewellery department and the mind behind this idea, is quick to define the expression: “The word Baaz is a Sanskrit term and refers to a white falcon,” he explains. “The Baaz possess strength, endurance and great beauty. They represent vision, ambition, courage and victory,” White Correal continues. “The White Baaz are intelligent, determined, accomplished, refined and beautiful – contemporary women who have style and substance in equal measure.”
The White Baaz group debuted during the Venice Biennale, on 9 May, when Sotheby’s and White Correal hosted a dinner in their honour at the Gritti Palace, where they wore jewels from upcoming auctions and the Sotheby’s Diamonds collection. Throughout the rest of the year, Sotheby’s will celebrate the women at events in New York, London, Dubai, Hong Kong and elsewhere, providing opportunities for them to shine and show off specially selected jewellery. “I am fortunate enough to work with the most beautiful jewels and rarest gems that nature has to offer,” says White Correal, “and it is my goal to contextualise these precious objects on modern-day icons of style rather than reference the past.”
Like most of their predecessors, these women come from distinguished families, but they also have careers and families. Some of them are even related to the original swans. Eugenie Niarchos, a London-based heiress of the Greek shipping dynasty, is one of Gloria Guinness’s great-granddaughters and runs her own fine jewellery line, Venyx; Manhattanite Daisy Prince, a writer and editor, is the grand-niece of C Z Guest; and Milanese sisters Coco and Bianca Brandolini d’Adda, grand-nieces of Marella Agnelli, serve respectively as director of Dolce & Gabbana’s Alta Moda couture line and as muse of Cartier’s free-thinking, playful Paris Nouvelle Vague jewellery collection.
Also among the White Baaz are Tatiana Casiraghi, granddaughter of Colombian billionaire Julio Mario Santo Domingo, wife of Andrea Casiraghi of Monaco and co-owner of sustainable fashion brand Muzungu Sisters; Margherita Maccapani Missoni, creative director of her family’s legendary fashion brand and creator of Margherita, her own children’s line; Elisabeth von Thurn und Taxis, style editor at large for American Vogue and daughter of Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis; and Countess Isabella Borromeo Arese Taverna, a filmmaker. “We recognise and honour them as new beacons of style,” says White Correal.
The mother of two young sons and a former editor in chief of Avenue magazine, Daisy Prince relishes belonging to the White Baaz and wearing jewellery lent by Sotheby’s. “One doesn’t have too many occasions to wear jewels like these,” she says. “Wearing jewels of high quality is one of the great joys of life. You’re at your most refined – the highest you can go.” She retains fond memories of her great-aunt C Z, who often came to stay with her family in Newport. “I found her very glamorous. But she was very straightforward and had a commanding presence,” Prince recalls. “If she didn’t approve of something, like your dress being wrinkled, she let you know.”
From family lore, Prince learned that C Z and the other swans “were very much a gang. They would go to lunches, dinners and balls together. They didn’t have jobs, but that’s not to say they didn’t work very hard,” she insists. “They were always busy, but they had to make it all look easy and effortless, like a swan paddling furiously underwater, but appearing to be gliding on the surface. These women had backbones of steel, swathed in silk.” Of course, Guest’s style was an inspiration. “She was always herself, and that was true in her jewellery, too, like her signature pearls or classic emerald brooch. She wore her jewels – they never seemed to wear her,” Prince concludes. “Having a true sense of style is a gift.” That quality has clearly been passed down to the White Baaz.
James Reginato is writer-at-large of Vanity Fair and author of Great Houses, Modern Aristocrats (Rizzoli).