The year was 1968, and boy, were times a-changing. It was a period of revolution and experimentation. It was the year the jumbo jet first came into service. Baby boomers were coming of age and there were more people enrolled in universities than ever before. It was the age of hippies, free love and freedom of expression.
In fact, it was a turning point in the retail world. Much as in recent years brands have turned to millennials as the new rising stars of untapped disposable income, the late 1960s was when haute couture houses and high-jewellery outfits began to cotton on to the new breed of executives who weren’t on the lookout for ostentatious gems and one-of-a-kind gowns. They wanted things that were easy to wear, convenient, discreet, fun and yet still luxurious.
And so one of Paris’s most feted jewellers, Van Cleef & Arpels, revealed what would become an icon: the Alhambra, a piece of jewellery that was delicate, desirable and precious, yet still wearable and approachable. Its proportions were simple: a symmetrical four-petalled flower motif that symbolised luck and that could be repurposed in myriad ways – and would be in the years to come.
Fifty years later, and Alhambra has achieved – through luck and hard work – what is deemed to be very difficult in the worlds of fashion and jewellery: it is universally recognised without being ubiquitous; appreciated for its historical value, yet retains an appeal that is both modern and vintage in equal measure.
To celebrate this milestone, Nicolas Bos, president and CEO of Van Cleef & Arpels commissioned a book detailing the firm’s rise to prominence. Titled simply Alhambra, it’s penned by Nicholas Foulkes, and even in literary form, manages to keep a few surprises up its sleeve. This is no brand book. The story doesn’t begin in the workshop and doesn’t end with a quote from the house’s current CEO. “What I love,” says Foulkes, “is that you see these different things coming in from different places, all these different stories that started way back over here and there. And they all come together at this one point, and that’s when you get Alhambra.”
“I made the point at the beginning of the book that [Alhambra] is not to be viewed on its own, it’s to be viewed as a logical creation, a constantly mutating gene of the company, constantly adapting and yet remaining the same. So Alhambra is familiar, and yet it’s constantly renewing itself.”
Foulkes should know – though he was initially hesitant to work on a book circling solely around a single collection, he soon changed his mind after diving into the archive.
While Alhambra’s cultural significance is rooted firmly in the late 1960s and early ’70s, its relevance and popularity is even greater today, and Foulkes estimates demand only really exploded at the turn of the century. “What it was [back then] was a very attractive piece of day jewellery,” suggests Foulkes. “Pierre Arpels was always good at new things: he did the [first non-high-jewellery] boutique in the ’50s and then he did the first fragrance in the ’70s, so he was always doing new and interesting things. Now, it’s become a classic almost by accident. It has been reproduced and reinterpreted, and all this has added another layer to the lustre of the object. It started off as this rebellious thing, and now it’s become a kind of actor in the establishment.”
A flip through the images in the book – which range from archival pictures of fashion and trends in the 1960s onwards to editorial and campaign photographs featuring Alhambra in its various forms – shows just how versatile the motif is, whether it’s presented as a watch dial, a sautoir or a between-the-fingers ring. But Bos didn’t want Alhambra locked in a cryogenic chamber, forever preserved and unchanging, so he invited a number of creatives from around the world and gave them carte blanche to reinterpret the design through their own eyes.
It’s not Foxe’s first time shooting Alhambra, and he’s certain it won’t be his last. Mindful of Alhambra’s place in history, Photographer Damian Foxe wanted to shoot the collection in a way that was current, and would bring back memories of this year even 50 years down the line. “What we wanted to do was capture moments in time. You know, you look back at old family photos and there’ll be a photo where you’re laughing, and you think, wow, I was so happy, and you remember it and you get transported back. We wanted to get that sense,” he says.
The four leaf clover behind the Alhambra is said to bring luck. “To be lucky, you must believe in luck,” Jacques Arpels, nephew of founder Estelle, used to intone. And certainly Alhambra has been lucky for the maison. “You can enjoy it instantly … wear it with the latest dress or the T-shirt you bought. At the same time, it needs to be timeless. [People today] look for that paradox, something that is really cool, really fashionable right now, but that they know and feel is still going to retain its relevance and [be a] pleasure to wear in five years or 10 years.”