Discover Alhambra: A Journey into Van Cleef & Arpels’ Iconic Heritage

Date: 08/04/2023

A story that starts with love truly never ends, which is why the Alhambra collection is here to stay!

I recently wrote an article about the meaning of Quiet Luxury in 2023, and as I was writing, I realized that one of my top 5 favorite designer jewelry collections fits the bill perfectly: Van Cleef and Arpels’ Alhambra collection.  Easily one of the most recognizable jewelry collections out there, the simple yet versatile clover motif – whether on beaded strings of gold and silver, or adorning rings and bracelets – is deeply emblematic of quiet luxury, with a simple shape touched by the highest quality materials.  Considering this collection is centered on a timeless emblem of luck and charm, and because it’s coming up on 55 years since it was introduced, I think now is the time to shine a bright light on the quiet luxury of this amazing collection, and even explore the history and inspiration behind the iconic design!

The Wedding of Van Cleef & Arpels

A match made in heaven, Estelle (born Esther) Arpels married Alfred Van Cleef in Paris, 1895. This event marked the now famous union between a gem-dealer’s daughter and a diamond broker’s son! Perhaps brought together by their passion for precious gems, the two began to support each other as Alfred worked with his brothers to open the very first Van Cleef & Arpels boutique just a few years later, still located in the heart of old Paris at 22 Place Vendôme.

From there the so-called celebrity couple name Van Cleef & Arpels became synonymous with the finest of jewelry, and the growing organization quickly evolved their design inspiration to reflect real-world events such as the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, which sparked a whole host of Egyptian cultural motifs in their work. Through the 30s, 40s, and 50s too, new cultural stylings from places like China and India were captured in precious jeweled objects, from brooches, to clutches, to earrings and more—so much so that in 1930 their designs attracted the attention of Queen Nazli in Egypt, on whose behalf the design house crafted an immaculate crown. According to popular sources on the subject, this would not be the last body of royalty the house would design for!

Still, while their craftsmanship was almost unrivaled even in their early beginnings, there was no one symbol or direction drawing forward the main focus of their brand. True, they were winning all kinds of awards – such as the grand prize at the International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts – but it wasn’t until Van Cleef & Arpels’ daughter, Renée Puissant, became the company’s art director in 1926 that the company really began to gain direction—in fact it was around this time that the seeds of what would become the Alhambra collection were being planted amid animated scenes of nature and animals. By 1928, four-leaf clover motifs were showing up alongside other fortune-bearing icons in all kinds of jewelry from the Maison, beginning the trend that has grown to signify their brand well into 2023 and beyond. 

Fun Fact: It was Van Cleef & Arpels that created a patent for the Mystery Setting, a jewelry technique that makes the gems they use appear as if they are floating, unattached by anything obvious about the ring. 

Birth of the Alhambra Collection

Still, it wasn’t until 1968 that the design house created a piece that we have come to recognize today as the Alhambra Long Necklace thanks to Renée’s nephew, Jacques Arpels. This is a piece that includes 20 clover-shaped motifs with their signature creased yellow-gold and gold-bead trim. 

But where did the inspiration for this collection come from?

Remember how we said many of the design themes for the Maison were from inspired by cultures outside their own? Well, this case is no different. As it turns out, the shape that has become central to the Alhambra line was inspired by a traditional pattern often seen in architecture and textiles, which includes a pattern of four overlapping circles called a quatrefoil. This quatrefoil, as it turns out, is representative of good luck – hence the relation to four-leaf clovers (which Jacques also loved to pick in his spare time). The name Alhambra, as it is used by Van Cleef & Arpels to describe their designs, was thus inspired by the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain. Just look at the designs on one of the walls from inside. Recognize anything?

Anyway, to say that the release of their first gold-only necklace in the Alhambra style was a success would be an understatement. Not only were they already adding different material options just three years later, but in 1971 the brand itself was mentioned in a James Bond film (Diamonds are Forever) as a part of a cool punchline. More and more celebrities began to adopt the simple string design in different sizes, even requesting different colors as soon as they became available. Famously, Grace Kelly collected a whole host of Alhambra necklaces, wearing two or three at a time in rock crystal, tortoise shell, malachite, or coral. 

If you’re interested, here is a quick ‘calendar’ that shows when Van Cleef & Arpels made new material options available to their fast-growing list of wealthy clients (list courtesy of Rebag): 

  • 1968: The first Alhambra long necklace is created.
  • 1971: Van Cleef & Arpels incorporates hard stones like malachite and lapis lazuli into the Alhambra collection.
  • 1972: Onyx and coral are used in the Alhambra collection.
  • 1973: Tiger’s Eye becomes a part of the Alhambra collection.
  • 1974: Turquoise finds its way into the Alhambra archives.
  • 1981: The Alhambra collection begins to feature mother-of-pearl, and then grey Mother-of-Pearl three years later in 1983.
  • 1985: Carnelian and diamonds on yellow gold are added to the Alhambra collection. 
  • 1989: Blue agate is highlighted in the latest Alhambra pieces.
  • 1994: Rock crystal is introduced to the Alhambra.
  • 2006: The milky chalcedony gemstone is featured in the Alhambra.
  • 2012: Sèvres porcelain and Letterwood join the Alhambra family.

As time has passed, the motif from the original Alhambra necklaces has been adopted into rings, earrings, bracelets, watches, brooches, and more, all of them well-decorated with fine gems and precious stones. And much like the other collections in their portfolio, Van Cleefs & Arpels place huge importance on craftsmanship when it comes to anything that incorporates the Alhambra symbolism. Indeed, the design house will accept nothing less than the best when it comes to materials, and each piece undergoes no less than 15 rounds of ‘creation’— from the person who cuts, polishes, and engraves the gems, to the jeweler who builds the final product. 

It’s absolutely incredible to see such finesse distilled down into truly simple pieces that feel they are worth their weight in gold. They manage to elevate almost any outfit while also giving an air of effortlessness. Not to mention there’s almost nothing I own that I cannot wear a piece of Alhambra with, whether I’m trying to dress up or down. 

As it turns out, that effect is large in part because of the culture that the Alhambra symbol was born into. 

Alhambra and the Culture of Jewelry

While I know that Van Cleef & Arpels were far from the front lines of the cultural revolution that was happening in Paris around the release of their first clover necklace, in many ways their existing aesthetic answered the changing desires of fashion-forward audiences around the early 70s. 

As clothing brands began to jump on board with ready-to-wear clothing as opposed to tailoring and customizations, a simpler approach to luxury became highly sought-after as well–particularly where quality and simplicity were concerned. Moreso, in an era that was challenging tired old traditions – some of which stated that high-quality jewelry only be saved for special occasions – the casual, laidback nature of the Alhambra Long Necklace made it possible to wear with almost anything, no matter your style or the time of day. 

Fun Fact: The term “Alhambra” comes from the Arabic phrase “al-qal’a al-hamra”, which means ‘red fort or castle’.

The Prestige of the Alhambra Collection

In over 50 years, so much has changed about the Alhambra collection; however even as the house continues to release different iterations – including the Magic Alhambra, the Pure Alhambra, the Sweet Alhambra, and the Lucky Alhambra lines (among others) – it is still recognizable in its original form; it’s only become more personalized for those who wear them. In fact, it is because these designs have been revised to such a degree over the course of the design house’s operation that it has become (without question) Van Cleef & Arpels’ most collectible line of jewelry!

The collectability of these pieces have only managed to increase their value into 2023, alongside the rarity of certain vintage Alhambra pieces including malachite and the forever sought-after turquoise. Honestly, it is a relief to know it’s not just me who has had trouble finding a turquoise Alhambra necklace–I guess it has something to do with the high standards Van Cleef & Arpels put on the materials they use. 

Plus, even when I do manage to find a turquoise one on the regular OR secondary markets, it’s almost double or triple the price it was when they first caught my eye (on an episode of 24 my husband and I were watching, if you were wondering!). 

All things considered, the signature Alhambra clover has become a lucky emblem for its makers, and its effects have trickled down to those of us who proudly wear our own clovers on pins and rings and other things. As I said before, the design has already stood the test of time thanks to its simplicity and ability to evolve, and as we move forward into new and exciting avenues of fashion, I don’t anticipate the design of this work going out of style. Even Grace Kelly’s daughter, Princess Caroline, is still caught wearing her mother’s Alhambra jewels! 

In that way, it does actually feel that my Van Cleef & Arpels necklaces have become their own sort of lucky charm, or totem, ones that I keep with me for a little subtle shine whenever it’s needed. It’s just an added benefit they happen to also represent one of the most successful jewelry houses this side of the 21st century, and the amazing design that got them there! 

So, what about you? Do you have any accessories that you consider your lucky charm? I would be curious to know how other people are connecting with the jewelry they own…but please don’t brag too much if you do have a turquoise Alhambra necklace! I couldn’t take it! (haha). But really, I want to thank you as always for joining me on this fashion exploration. Plus, stay tuned as I continue to share more about my favorite fashion brands and buys! Can’t wait to catch up next time, 

All my love,