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50 Years Of Luck: The History Of The Van Cleef & Arpels Alhambra Jewels

As Van Cleef & Arpels celebrates the 50th anniversary of its Alhambra jewels this year, we look into the history of this emblematic collection.

What makes a piece of jewellery iconic? Be it the rich history behind it or the presence of said jewellery on a constellation of celebrities and royalty alike, Van Cleef & Arpels offers both in droves with its Alhambra jewels. Over the last 50 years since its inception, the unmistakable four-leaf clover trefoil has been spotted on the likes of Grace Kelly, Francoise Hardy and Mariah Carey. Although the Van Cleef & Arpels Alhambra has undergone numerous re-imaginations, it has never strayed far from its core, inseparable tenet: Luck.

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Van Cleef & Arpels Alhambra
Francoise Hardy (Photo credit: Catherine Rotulo)

Introduced in 1968, Alhambra was the result of Jacques Arpels’ affection for four-leaf clovers he often found in his childhood garden in northern France. He would present these handpicked four-leaf clovers to his staff, accompanying each with an uplifting poem, Don’t Quit by American abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier. The clover eventually found its way into Van Cleef & Arpels’ catalogues in 1968 with the first Alhambra long necklace, made up of 20 delicate clovers creased in gold and edged with golden beads.

Van Cleef & Arpels Alhambra
Princess Grace of Monaco (Photo credit: Anwar-Hussein via Getty Images)

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Once the Alhambra arrived at the Van Cleef & Arpels boutique at 22 Place Vendôme, it skyrocketed into the spotlight. The Alhambra long necklace would become a staple in the wardrobes of numerous dignitaries, especially Princess Grace of Monaco. The elegant Hollywood-star-turned-royalty and style icon cherished her collection of Alhambra long necklaces, and Van Cleef & Arpels paid tribute to her patronage by dedicating several special-edition pieces from the 2010 Vintage Alhambra collection to her. Grace’s own daughter, Princess Caroline, is often spotted wearing her own Alhambra long necklace, a testament to the four-leafed clover’s everlasting charm.

Van Cleef & Arpels Alhambra

Until today, the Van Cleef & Arpels Alhambra remains a beloved piece of jewellery for women of all walks of life around the world. But it is more than a mere accessory: The Alhambra necklace reflected the changes that were occurring during Jacques Arpels’ time, and became one of the symbols of the rising feminist movement in post-war France. Previously, fine jewellery only made an appearance at events in the evening, and was frowned upon as sybaritic during the daytime. But as the women’s liberation movement grew, these rules about wearing jewellery — once strictly adhered to — quickly became antiquated. 

Van Cleef & Arpels has always been in the forefront of innovation in jewellery design. It has a patent for the unequivocally named Mystery Setting, so dubbed for granting jewels the illusion of floating, seemingly unhindered by prongs or settings. For the Van Cleef & Arpels Alhambra line, however, the brand reached far beyond a mere patent. Women, wielding increasing financial independence, had become more interested in purchasing jewellery by themselves and for themselves. And the Alhambra served as an accessible gateway into the world of fine jewellery. 

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Through the years, the company has experimented with various incarnations of the Alhambra, gradually incorporating a litany of rare and precious gemstones into the collection, such as tiger’s eye, grey mother-of-pearl, and blue agate. It also introduced various complementary collections, such as watches in 1998. 

To fete its golden anniversary this year, Van Cleef & Arpels has announced an array of collaborations with various luminaries in the creative arena. French photographer Valérie Belin, whose dream-like works blur the line between her human subjects and the jewellery they don, produced a series of contemporary images centred around the mystique of the Alhambra long necklace. Visual artists Burcu & Geoffrey, meanwhile, created a suite of whimsical 3D animations that encapsulated the Alhambra’s quintessential savoir faire.  

Van Cleef & Arpels Alhambra

In the 50 years since inception, Alhambra’s delicate quatrefoil motif has become an unmistakable shorthand for elegance and class and a symbol of aspiration for generations of women all around the globe.

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