Jewelry & Watches

Secrets Behind the Legendary Good Fortune of Van Cleef's Iconic Alhambra

Two 50th anniversary styles of the iconic necklace are revealed exclusively to T&C.

“Can you believe I still don’t have one?!” So exclaimed a jewelry-focused friend when I asked her to help me define the enduring allure of Van Cleef & Arpels’s Alhambra, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. (Full disclosure: I had also hoped I could borrow a piece.) I was leaving for Marrakech the next day to celebrate the milestone and had recently, on my morning commute, been stopping by the Van Cleef windows at 57th and Fifth, jewelry crossroads of the world.

The limited edition commemorative collection had begun to dominate the vitrines. There was a new gray mother-of-pearl Alhambra with diamonds and rose gold, an onyx one with diamonds and white gold, one in which lapis lazuli alternated with diamond clovers, and a vintage-inspired special collection with rock crystal in yellow gold. (A 50th anniversary blue agate and yellow gold version of the Alhambra is pictured above.)

An exclusive look at a 50th anniversary style.

I was hoping my friend might have had the inside track on a turquoise Alhambra set, one of the most difficult to find (turquoise that meets the Van Cleef standard is increasingly elusive). Or maybe the carnelian and tiger’s-eye sautoir I had long coveted.

I wondered, as I stalked the displays and saw multiple women along the avenue wearing multiple Alhambras: How does a company like Van Cleef, which demands the best material and craftsmanship and whose mystique partly lies in the inaccessibility of its wares, satisfy demand when a piece becomes as widely coveted as the Alhambra?

“You cannot create an icon,” says Nicolas Bos, president and CEO of Van Cleef & Arpels. “You are happy when it happens, but you cannot plan this.” The house has, however, continued to satisfy its clients’ desire for novelty.


The Alhambra, seen on Françoise Hardy in 1974, has become a classic.

The original drawings for the Alhambra can be spotted in the archives from 1968. Flowers and clover shapes go back much further, but the birth of the Alhambra style—a four-leaf clover strung on a simple gold chain or bracelet—happened at a turning point in jewelry history. 

“Alhambra represents the crazy spirit of that time, and the real beginning of wearable fine jewelry,” Bos says. “I don’t associate Alhambra with High Jewelry—it is simpler in its motif—but it is a true expression of jewelry adapting to the time. It is its own code.”

The style continues to evolve—and to stoke the flames of collectors’ desire— through the house’s constant introduction of new materials, as well as the return of traditional favorites. The earliest Alhambras were done in creased gold and black onyx, but ivory and wood soon followed (neither is now available), as did the signature stone styles like malachite, lapis, and carnelian. And as the 50th-anniversary celebrations continue, so do the introductions: A blue agate Alhambra from 1989 will come out of retirement, and a gold guilloche will debut.

“To be lucky,” Jacques Arpels once said, “you have to believe in luck.” It also helps to keep obsessed collectors always wanting more.

A 1976 collection coral necklace

This story originally appeared on
* Minor edits have been made by the editors.

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Stellene Volandes
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