Sunny von Bülow’s Daughter Talks Style and Christie’s ‘Magnificent Jewels’ Sale

Like her mother Sunny von Bülow, who relayed an effortless style, Ala von Auersperg has drawn upon that and not just defined her own poise, but built a business around it.

Eight years after starting her signature company, von Auersperg is branching out into new categories, offering wholesale, hosting more trunk shows and pairing up for collaborations. The designer reimagines some of the art on canvas that is featured in her paintings for her apparel.

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Her mother, whose given name was Martha Sharp Crawford, was the sole heir of Columbia Gas and Electric chairman George Crawford. A member of high society in Manhattan and Newport, R.I., the fair-haired von Bülow was known for her impeccable taste. About a dozen pieces of jewelry that once belonged to her were auctioned in Tuesday’s “Magnificent Jewels” sale at Christie’s in New York, and exceeded pre-sale estimates.

Van Cleef carved emerald
A Van Cleef & Arpels carved emerald necklace with rubies and diamonds that once belonged to Sunny von Bülow.

After watching a livestream of the sale, von Auersperg said she was thrilled with the outcome. While Magnificent Jewels racked up $44.4 million in sales, the “Beauty in Design: Magnificent Jewelry from Sunny Crawford von Bülow and Ala von Auersperg Isham” generated $1.4 million, according to a Christie’s spokesperson. Von Auersperg, who was formerly known as Princess Annie-Laurie Auersperg, said Tuesday, “I think it was a real compliment to my mother actually that the sale did incredibly well.”

There was nothing bittersweet about bidding adieu to those jewels since they weren’t being worn and had sat in a vault for 40 years, von Auersperg said. Having kept some of the pieces that her mother wore and that Von Auersperg continues to wear, the designer said she is very happy with what remains. All in all, she said the Christie’s sale was a great way to perpetuate her mother’s memory, “because she was a woman of enormous style and taste.

“This is a testament to that,” she said.

While some associate von Bülow with the epitome of chic, others recall how her second husband Claus (who was not von Auersperg’s father) was tried twice for attempted murder. Sunny von Bülow died in 2008, after having spent the last 28 years of her life in a coma. Her daughter, who cofounded the National Center of Victims of Crime and the Brain Trauma Foundation to honor her mother’s memory, declined to comment about the trial.

The standout pieces in the Christie’s auction were a a Van Cleef & Arpels carved Colombian emerald, ruby, and diamond necklace, which sold for $289,800, as well as an Art Deco necklace with natural pearls, cultured pearls and diamonds, which fetched $302,400 — more than triple the pre-sale opening estimate.

Outside of the Christie’s sale, Tiffany & Co. recently bought some earrings for its permanent collection that von Bülow had designed with the company. Von Auersperg then scrolled up images of her mother wearing those designs.

Very influenced by her mother’s style, von Auersperg said, “But I’ve also created my own style, as you do over the years. There’s no doubt that she had incredible taste, and it wasn’t flashy. It was just innate. She wasn’t at all a show-off. She loved beautiful things, but she wasn’t at all concerned about showing it to her friends.”

While the Hulu series “Feud: Capote vs. The Swans,” has revived interest in the stylishness of Old Guard socialites like Babe Paley and CZ Guest, von Auersperg said, “I don’t think of my mother as at all swan-like, because she was shy. She really didn’t go out that much. But she loved creating beautiful atmospheres for her family and collecting beautiful things.”

Countess Sunny Von Bulow at home.
Countess Sunny von Bülow at home wearing a few of the pieces that were auctioned at Christie’s.

Von Bülow also excelled at floral arrangements, according to von Auersperg, who recalled how big baskets of flowers would be carried in from the cutting garden at Clarendon Court in Newport and her mother would create “these fabulous arrangements” in an immense urn for her family.

During a joint interview, she and her daughter Sunny Kneissl Zweig, who is director of sales and marketing at her mother’s company, highlighted their plans for the clothing business. Looking at a photo of von Bülow, Zweig said, “Everything was incredibly classic at that time. It was about being elegant, chic and classic. My mother has certainly carried that forward in her designs. It wasn’t about the hottest trend.”

In turn, the American-made Ala von Auersperg collection is designed to be timeless and is geared for women between the ages of 35 and 65. Started eight years ago with a focus on caftans that incorporated the artwork that von Auersperg painted, the company still specializes in proprietary prints, but more youthful styles are now in the mix too such as swimwear and a three-piece “beach-to-blacktie” set of a spandex top and bottom with a mesh layer. There are also jackets, and cotton and silk dresses, pareos, separates and a fragrance and bug spray.

Ala von Auersperg
Ala von Auersperg has introduced swimwear.

Through a collaboration with the fragrance specialist Veronique Gabai, von Auersperg will debut a collaboration on June 20. Shoppers will be able to buy Gabai’s Sur la Plage fragrance in a sleeve with one of on Aersperg’s prints, or Gabai’s Saint Tropez pendant in a similarly printed pouch.

Veronique Gabai x Ala Von Auersperg
Veronique Gabai x Ala Von Auersperg

While the majority of von Auersperg’s business is currently sold online, the brand is also available in her signature Palm Beach boutique, via personal shopping in New York City, and in select specialty retailers. There are also 45 trunk shows planned for this year — a slight increase compared to last year. With most shoppers based along the Eastern seaboard and in Texas, the company recently tapped into California. Wholesale, which currently accounts for about 20 percent of the annual volume, is another opportunity, the founder said. Looking ahead, the plan is to introduce signature plates and other tabletop items.

Ala von Auersperg
Designs from Ala von Auersperg.

In the meantime, the summer-friendly brand will host special events in Newport, R.I., Nantucket and Cape Cod, Mass., and Bermuda — all destinations where post-COVID-19 many second homeowners started spending more time. An upcoming annual luncheon, fashion show and shopping opportunity for 50 guests in Newport is a favorite date on the calendar for von Auersperg. Fastidious about fit and featuring online videos of women not just wearing her designs, but moving in them, she said, “I believe in making women feel beautiful. When you feel great, you go out and have a good time.”

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