The Evolution of Van Cleef & Arpels' Alhambra

The Evolution of Van Cleef & Arpels' Alhambra

How a cherished haute jewelry brand from the Golden Age broke through to the Modern Age.
How a cherished haute jewelry brand from the Golden Age broke through to the Modern Age.

Decades before conceiving its iconic Alhambra collection, Van Cleef & Arpels opened its boutique during the Belle Époque. The Parisian house became renowned for creating jewelry of soul-dazzling beauty through sourcing precious gemstones combined with unparalleled innovation.

Their nature-inspired motifs, such as the four-leaf clover, were included in the Alhambra, while silver ballet figurines danced on brooches and multifunctional jewelry expertly converted from bracelets to necklaces.Winning the patronage of royalty and Old Hollywood alike, the family-run Maison was even inspired by Wallis Simpson to create the Cadenas line in the 1930s.

Van Cleef earrings in the Vintage Alhambra design — true to the original clover sautoir in size and symmetry with the gold-beaded perimeter

In 1954, Van Cleef & Arpels recognized the need to expand its base and released La Boutique, a collection of whimsical animal brooches made of semi-precious stones to draw in a younger consumer. Not only did La Boutique reach its intended demographic, but it also turned the heads of its longtime devotees—which encouraged the Maison to lean in to current trends.

Enter the Swinging Sixties: The free-spirited decade ushered in Twiggy and Cher, miniskirts and slinky silhouettes, vastly departing from the traditions of the first half of the century. It fast-forwarded a sense of style for independent women who could buy their own jewelry, and who wanted day-to-night versatility to accommodate their bustling careers and busy social lives. Sculptural haute jewelry itself suddenly belonged to the previous generation, and it demanded reinterpretation.

This Van Cleef & Arpels bracelet features a smooth perimeter rather than gold beads, a signature of The Pure Alhambra

The Alhambra was Van Cleef & Arpels’ answer to these changing times—the brainchild of Jacques Arpels married the four-leaf clover motif with this new concept of freedom and femininity. Having said “To be lucky, you must believe in luck,” Jacques created the Alhambra as an amalgamation of the clover with the Moorish quatrefoil of the Alhambra Palace for which it’s named.

The 1968 debut of the line, with its twenty gleaming gold clovers reflecting an haute hippie aesthetic, promised a fresh dose of joie de vivre, revitalizing the brand in a decade that had seen tremendous social change.The Alhambra quickly became a coveted piece to adorn the décolletage of top celebrities and tastemakers around the world.

van cleef & arpels gold blue agate magic alhambra motif long pendant necklace
The Magic Alhambra: Bold and symmetrical, it presents a harmonious combination of clover shapes and materials including white gold, blue agate, tiger’s eye and carnelian

With its lighthearted design, Alhambra jewelry is easily mixed in with the new ready-to-wear line of fashion, and it carried an everyday, everywoman appeal. It made a sophisticated statement in the daytime with jeans and a turtleneck as easily as with an evening gown at an annual ball.

The four-leaf clover became a favorite of celebrities such as Grace Kelly. The actress famously collected Alhambra necklaces, often wearing three at once with various gemstone combinations, providing inspiration for multiple ways of wearing the collection to make the look one’s own.

A Van Cleef Ring in the Lucky Alhambra design which is inspired by nature

In the years since, the Alhambra has become the perennial of jewelry design, perpetually reinventing itself to the delight of its fans. The variations of the clover motif include nature-inspired themes such as leaves and butterflies. The kaleidoscope of colorful materials feature lapis lazuli, onyx, agate, turquoise and malachite in rings, earrings, brooches, chokers and bracelets. Stroll down 5th Avenue or visit Place Vendôme, and its cheerful silhouette can be spied twinkling in the windows of Van Cleef & Arpels’ famous boutiques.

A more recent version of the famous design, the Byzantine Alhambra can feature both openwork and solid clover medallions

The universality of the Alhambra continues to enchant a long list of celebrities such as Margot Robbie and Heidi Klum—as well as a new generation of royals such as Kate Middleton, who was spotted in evening attire accessorized with a shimmering set of the Magic Alhambra in mother of pearl.

Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge attends the EE British Academy Film Awards 2020 Jeff Spicer/Getty Images

For those who embrace the serendipity of talismans in high jewelry design, the Alhambra is Van Cleef & Arpels’ ambassador of good luck. Just as the ’60s was a renaissance for new ideas, the auspicious collection encourages the creativity to live life on one’s own terms.

Van Cleef & Arpels White Gold and Diamond Sweet Alhambra Ring
The Sweet Alhambra pieces come in smaller dimensions with miniature motifs

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