The 1960s saw a significant increase in the amount of women entering the workforce, and French jeweler Jacques Arpels (1914–2008) — nephew of Estelle Arpels, who founded luxury jewelry house Van Cleef & Arpels with her husband, Alfred, in 1906 — wanted to design haute yet everyday pieces for the fashionable working woman. Enter the Alhambra necklace, a yellow-gold opera-length chain dotted with 20 solid-gold quatrefoils. Jacques’s subdued, easy-to-wear design in 1968 was an immediate hit, and the motif has since become the house’s signature.
As a young man, Jacques was fascinated with the relationship that four-leaf clovers have long shared with good fortune. But as much as his Alhambra motif pays tribute to the lucky charm, it also references the quatrefoils so prevalent in the Moorish architecture of Spain’s stately Alhambra palace, which is where the series gets its name.
Alhambra has never gone out of production since its inception, and Van Cleef & Arpels has expanded the collection to include earrings and bracelets. It has also incorporated other metals and gems over the years. Magic Alhambra necklaces, for example, joined the series’ dozens of celebrated necklaces, while the Sweet Alhambra pendant, a petite variation of the long-beloved motif, debuted in 2007. And just as early Alhambra pieces were immediately popular with high-profile enthusiasts such as Grace Kelly, the popularity of the series with celebrities has endured in the decades since, with recent adopters including actress Blake Lively and Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge.
Shop Designs in the Collection
One of the world’s foremost jewelry houses, Van Cleef & Arpels is particularly noted for a focus on technical virtuosity, craftsmanship and artistry, evident since its beginning. Rather than jewelry whose primary aim was the display of wealth and opulence, Van Cleef & Arpels sought to produce pieces that projected the wearer’s taste and style — winning the house a roster of dedicated, fashion-conscious clients that included the Duchess of Windsor, Marlene Dietrich, Barbara Hutton, Jacqueline Onassis and Elizabeth Taylor.
The company was formed a year after the 1895 marriage of Alfred Van Cleef, the son of a gem cutter, to Estelle Arpels, daughter of precious-stones dealer Salomon Arpel. Ten years later, Van Cleef & Arpels opened its first boutique on the Place Vendôme in Paris, setting the march on a square now crowded with dealers in bijouterie. (The company still occupies the New York flagship store opened in 1939 at Fifth Avenue and 57th Street.) Born from a union of expertise in both jewelry making and gem selection, the firm distinguished itself with both the consistency of the color and clarity of its stones and the creativity of its designs. In 1933, Van Cleef & Arpels patented its trademark Mystery Setting — a technique by which gems are fitted into an intricate matrix of slots and “drawers” that keep the setting hidden. Another signal innovation was the Zip necklace, introduced in 1951, which can be worn either around the neck or, with the zipper closed, as a bracelet.
But as much as to the firm’s craftsmanship, clients have been drawn by the insouciance and playfulness of Van Cleef & Arpels designers, as well as their attunement to the cultural climate. After the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, the company produced several lavish pieces featuring hieroglyphics and other Egyptian motifs to go along with the geometric Art Deco jewelry of that decade and the next. Following World War II, as symbols of freedom and rebirth, the firm focused on naturalistic forms such as birds, flowers, fruit and flying insects. High society’s 1960s fascination with the Near East and India prompted such pieces as the best-selling Alhambra necklace, popularized by Princess Grace. Lately, attention among collectors and connoisseurs has centered on Van Cleef & Arpels’s quality of workmanship as much as its glamour. The firm was the subject of a 2012 show at the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, as well as exhibitions at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, California, in 2013 and at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris in 2014.