The History of the Iconic Van Cleef Alhambra

By Catherine Kim
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History of Van Cleef Alhambra

In the first half of the 1950s, infamous French fine jewelry house, Van Cleef and Arpels recognized the need to create more accessible fine jewelry pieces for a new generation of women. It launched ‘La Boutique’ in Paris in 1954, and soon found a voracious appetite for semi-precious jewelry pieces that could be worn as daytime adornments, rather than alongside formal evening attire. Of all the jewelry motifs created by Van Cleef and Arpels in this era, perhaps the most widely acknowledged and emblematic of the house is the Alhambra, which was first unveiled in 1968.

Van Cleef Alhambra is a talismanic design inspired by the four leaf clover and reminiscent of traditional Moorish quatrefoil (a framework pattern consisting of four overlapping circles). In fact, the collection is said to be named after the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain, which boasts a number of sweeping archways.

Van Cleef Alhambra
Princess Grace of Monaco was frequently photographed wearing her Alhambra necklaces in the 1970s. Photo by Anwar Hussein/Getty Images  

The first Van Cleef Alhambra design was an opera-length necklace punctuated with 20 clover-shaped motifs crafted with the Van Cleef’s signature beaded edges. As the 1960s made way for the 1970s, the Van Cleef Alhambra became hugely popular among celebrity clients, who layered many Van Cleef Alhambra necklaces of different sizes and with different gemstone combinations for the quintessential daytime look. The American actress Grace Kelly who later went on to become Princess Grace of Monaco, was a long-time devotee of Van Cleef and Arpels and a collector of Van Cleef Alhambra necklaces in coral, malachite, rock crystal, tortoise shell. She regularly wore two or three at any one time, with the addition of an Van Cleef Alhambra pendant to make the look her own.

Variations on the Van Cleef Alhambra

During its 50-year history, the Van Cleef and Arpels Alhambra has been almost continually refreshed and revised, making it one of the house’s most collectible fine jewelry motifs. Each decade saw the introduction of new semi-precious and precious gemstones, such as carnelian, agate, onyx, tiger’s eye and turquoise, as well as feminine mother-of-pearl, diamonds and sky blue chalcedony, in special capsule collections each with their own spin on the Van Cleef Alhambra motif, such as Magic Alhambra, Sweet Alhambra, Pure Alhambra, Lucky Alhambra and Byzantine Alhambra, to name a few.

There’s also the Vintage Alhambra collection in bois d’amourette, also known as letterwood, which has a flecked reddish-brown appearance. To produce this facet of the Van Cleef Alhambra collection, Van Cleef and Arpels relied on the skills of a traditional cabinet maker and inlayer.

Thanks to the continued popularity and varied iterations of the Van Cleef and Arpels Alhambra (covering necklaces, rings, bracelets and even watches), the motif has become an instantly recognizable symbol of the Van Cleef adn Arpels brand and the message of good luck and good fortune at its heart.

Van Cleef Alhambra Buying Guide

There are two ways to purchase Van Cleef Alhambra at Sotheby's. We regularly source Van Cleef Alhambra bracelets and Alhambra jewelry for our Buy Now marketplace where Van Cleef jewelry is available for immediate purchase. The selection varies and Van Cleef Alhambra sells very quickly so check back regularly. Rare vintage Van Cleef Alhambra pieces are also regularly featured in our fine jewelry auctions. You can find a complete list of upcoming auctions on the Jewelry Department page.

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