This year, Van Cleef & Arpel’s Alhambra collection celebrates its Golden Anniversary. Fifty years ago, the line became instantly recognizable for its whimsical four-leaf clovers, symbolizing good luck, good fortune and good health—miniature works of sculpture created with materials of the highest quality materials and meticulous craftsmanship.
When the Alhambra line was expanded to include watches, they were as stylish and elegant as the rest of the collection, with faces in the shape of a four-leaf clover and beaded accents. There are two iconic Alhambra ladies watches in the Diamonds by Raymond Lee estate collection, one in yellow gold and onyx, the other in white gold and mother-of-pearl, both with a clover motif bracelet instead of a band.
Alhambra Yellow Gold and Onyx Ladies Watch
The watch’s clover-shaped face is a numberless black onyx with round brilliant diamonds marking the quarter hours. The case, bezel, beaded border and hands are 18-karat yellow gold, and the crystal is scratch-resistant sapphire. The 18-karat yellow gold bracelet has seven clover charms, each inlaid with onyx and accented with round brilliant diamonds set into the bezel. The back of the case is signed and numbered by Van Cleef & Arpels and the Swiss watchmaker.
The onyx has its own symbolism that complements that of the four-leaf clover. It is among the most ancient of stones and was used by early humans who believed the future could be seen in its dark and mysterious beauty. Black onyx amulets protected warriors. It must have had great importance to the nomadic Hebrews as it is the first precious stone mentioned in Genesis. It was in the Garden of Eden, as was gold.
Onyx can be found in many places around the world, but only Brazilian onyx has the exceptional quality, lack of inclusions and durability that Van Cleef & Arpels requires. The black of the onyx must be absolutely even and the polish perfect for a mirror effect.
Alhambra White Gold and Mother-of-Pearl Ladies Watch
The watch face is mother-of-pearl and the case, bezel and hands 18-karat white gold. The crystal is scratch-resistant sapphire. The bracelet is 18-karat white gold with seven clover charms inset with mother-of-pearl in various sizes and shades of mother-of-pearl. The back of the case is signed and numbered by both Van Cleef & Arpels and the Swiss watchmaker.
In addition to the good luck the clovers bring, mother-of-pearl lessens stress and facilitates the free flow of energy in body and spirit.
Mother-of-pearl is the iridescent layer found on the inside of seashells, particularly abalone and pearl oysters. Although white mother-of-pearl is commonly used, gray mother-of-pearl has its own charm: It garners attention and admiration because it is unusual, has an eerie essence and reflects light as a prism does, in a spectrum of colors. Only Indonesian and Japanese mother-of-pearl are used for the Alhambra watches. It is in those locations that the very highest quality of color, uniformity and finish are found.
Alhambra was launched as part of an initiative to invite younger women and the less affluent into the world of fine jewelry. The line, however, would not be pigeonholed. Women of all ages embraced it and women from every segment of society, including royalty—both European and Hollywood royalty. Princess Grace of Monaco and Elizabeth Taylor are among these women. It became Van Cleef & Arpel’s signature line as well as its most popular.
The collection was named “Alhambra” for the fortress erected in Granada by the Moors in the 9th century and remade into a palace by the 14th century. It is magnificent and exotic with soaring arches, domed ceilings and glazed-tile passageways decorated with arabesque, honeycomb and geometric patterns—and with quatrefoils, decorative elements formed from the overall outline of four partially overlapping circles of the same diameter. In other words, the quatrefoil motif depicts one of nature’s simple wonders, the four-leaf clover. (Quattuour means “four,” and folium means “leaf.”) It was included in art, architecture and textiles for centuries due to the symmetry, balance and harmony the distinctive shape brings to any design, but it was Alhambra that inspired the jewelers of Van Cleef & Arpels: the simple four-leaf clover accenting the grandeur as well as the rich history of the quatrefoil beyond the Moors.
During the Bronze Age, the Celts, from their strongholds in Europe, spread their culture to Ireland. They included belief in the ability of a charm the shape of a quatrefoil to protect them. Mayans added the shape to monuments as a representation of the crossroads of the four primary directions. It is said to be the passageway between the celestial and the underworld. Similarly, it represented the “Four Corners of the Earth” to Native Americans. And for Christians, it represents the four evangelists of the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
The Alhambra collection perpetuates the symbolism of the clover leaf and the quatrefoil. A harmonious design that carries good wishes to the wearer is never out of fashion. And Van Cleef & Arpels never fails to provide “nothing short of perfection” by adhering to a rigorous process that maintains that standard in their watches.
Both stones and metals undergo a 15-point inspection. All settings, diamonds, onyx and mother-of-pearl must be of the highest quality. The onyx and mother-of-pearl is shaped into the clover motif and polished. The gold that outlines the clover is shaped and polished separately. The setting is finished by hand for a flawless fit. Meanwhile, each link of the gold chain bracelet is thoroughly inspected to ensure the links are uniformly shaped and secure. Finally, the settings are carefully assembled by hand: the stone-setter deftly secures each clover motif within its gold setting. One more polishing and the jeweler inspects the finished product to guarantee it meets the uncompromising standards. The cherished Alhambra watches are the result of the creative collaboration of lapidaries, jewelers, stone-setters, polishers and watchmakers.
The Alhambra collection has never fallen out of favor. It has always been prized for its beauty and its timelessness; for many it is a collectible and part of a family’s legacy. In the early 2000s, it returned to center stage, worn by today’s Hollywood fashionistas, such as Charlize Theron, Reese Witherspoon and Sharon Stone. By the most forward thinking, among the royals, Princess Grace’s daughter and daughter-in-law, Caroline and Charlene also wore the motif. This is where it remains. What began as affordable jewelry lives on as a symbol of luxury.