As Luck Would Have It
“To be lucky, you have to believe in luck,” said Jacques Arpels. Kenneth Goh travels with Van Cleef and Arpels as it celebrates 50 years of the Alhambra—and its journey from a humble quatrefoil design to a charming status symbol
The idea of this magical quality called luck has been prayed, wished and searched for across centuries. Its innate elusiveness goes some way towards explaining why Van Cleef and Arpels’ (VCA) idea of luck, more specifically, the Alhambra, has been a shining emblem for the House for 50 glor ious years. And in an era where technology and Google reign supreme, this unfathomable, unscientific, unexplained quality is now, ironically, altogether far harder to track down. Having a piece of luck hanging from your neck, wrists, fingers or ears has never been more desirable.
The Alhambra started life in 1968. Five decades on, VCA has chosen to celebrate the magic of this lucky charm—probably the most recognisable four-leaf clover emblem in the world of jewellery—in the exotic environs of Marrakesh.Why this city? Well, despite the Moorish Andalusian association with its name, and the distinct quatrefoil form, the Alhambra didn’t in fact originate in Spain, but rather took inspiration from the ogives and quadr illes of Gothic Venice. So, it’s fitting that the celebration of the Alhambra should take place in a land where history unfolds in a unique meeting of Arabic culture with European tradition. Over five days in Marrakesh, I was treated to the very best sights, sounds and tastes of this magical kingdom in the desert, culminating in a one-night-only dinner and party held in the El Badi Palace, illuminated by no less than 10,001 oil lamps.
Surrounded by the magical qualities of this spiritual land, where a strict Islamic culture exists alongside French insouciance and Gallic laissez-faire, I truly began to understand and fall in love with this lucky charm.The quatrefoil design appeared everywhere I turned, whether dotted across archways of the famous Yves Saint Laurent museum, or deeply etched in mosaics on the facade of the Bahia Palace. Deep in the souks, the lucky emblem decorated ceramics and danced across candle-lit courtyards, and cast delightful shadows on mounds of fragrant couscous and flavoured tagine. At night, the Alhambra came out to play on the members of the international press who graced the event. On long chains of gold and black onyx,
the motif looked deliciously bohemian on the European press, decorating gossamer-thin floral evening dresses with deep V-necklines and tanned summer skin. It recalled the r ise in prominence of the Alhambra in the ’70s, when in response to the hippy era, VCA brought out malachite and lapiz lazuli in 1971. This was followed by onyx and coral in 1972, tiger’s eye in 1973 and turquoise in 1974—precious coloured stones that spoke of an era of decadence, free love and personal ornamentation.
The Asian press wore their lucky charms in a more traditional way, decorating black dresses and brilliant red gowns with pendants of Sweet Alhambra, with ears and wrists decorated with tiny charms of mother-of-pearl or pink gold. Small, intricate and delicate, the Alhambra took on an altogether more Zen-like appeal, looking distinctly like Japanese kamon (family crests).This recalls the success VCA had in Japan in the ’70s, when the French jeweller made the brave move to be the first French jewellery house to open a boutique there in 1974. Harnessing on the Japanese national love affair with Western luxury, plus the air of familiarity with their own national emblem that’s been used for centuries in all walks of life, this marriage marked one of the most successful forays into a foreign market, where Japan remained the most important market for VCA until the end of the century.
Nicholas Foulkes, the acclaimed British author and art historian of a book on the Alhambra, sums it up best: “I’m a huge believer in luck or coincidence.We may plan things, but they very seldom turn out the way we envisioned... In the end, the forces of the universe need to be with us, and Alhambra’s been very lucky because it came at just the right time; it stuck around, and it was revived. Each time the Alhambra looked like it had fallen from favour, it found favour somewhere [else] and it found its way through. So,Alhambra has been lucky.You don’t stick around for 50 years and then become an overnight success without luck.”
The beauty of the Alhambra can be seen in its ability to morph and change according to the wearer’s style, ethnicity and taste. “It remains the same. It remains identifiably what it is. So, if you look at it from that perspective, if you’re changing everything about it, but the shape...You know it’s always going to look fresh.” said Foulkes. I call it jewellery’s chic little Rubik’s cube.
Perhaps the enduring quality of the Alhambra can be best summed up by the chic style of the famous women who wore them. “Its appeal is characterised when you have Grace Kelly and her daughter, Caroline, wearing the Alhambra in two very different ways by two very different generations. If you have to pick the one thing to sum it up, that would probably be it,” said Foulkes. In 1974, Françoise Hardy was photographed wearing two long Alhambra necklaces. Romy Schneider notably wore an Alhambra necklace in Michel Deville’s film,
Clearly, the allure of celebrity continues to build on a brand’s legacy and DNA, even long after they have left the silver screen.
“You don’t stick around for 50 years and then become an overnight success without luck.” — Nicholas Foulkes
Today, the Alhambra continues to c a p t iva t e a whole new audience keen to find their own piece of luck. Almost half a centur y after the first Alhambra piece appeared, very little has changed when it comes to the allure of this humble quatrefoil design: “The ease of wear, the elegant informality, the versatility, the appeal to the emancipated woman, the ever-broadening choice of colour,” said Foulkes.And, I would add, with a status symbol as pure and simple as a four-leaf clover shrouded in a romantic story, enclosed in precious metals, centred on a magnetic stone and hung from pure gold—the idea of luck never shone as brightly as it does today. ■
Audrey Marnay in a photography series lensed by Damian Foxe for Van Cleef & Arpels
Clockwise from top left: An illustration by Julie Joseph for VCA. The El Badi Palace lit up by candles for the one-night-only VCA event. A pair of pink gold, grey mother-ofpearl and diamond Vintage Alhambra earrings. A fashion image from New York, 1984. One of Marrakesh’s most famous sites, the Majorelle Garden. Kenneth Goh and Nicholas Foulkes at the French consul general’s residence. A crystal roche Alhambra sautoir. Spices on sale at a souk
Clockwise from top left: Françoise Hardy wearing VCA pieces in 1974. A pink gold, grey mother-of-pearl and diamond Vintage Alhambra sautoir. Sonia Sieff wearing her Vintage Alhambra necklace. A page from a catalogue for La Boutique Van Cleef and Arpels in New York, 1973. A gold, lapis lazuli and diamond Vintage Alhambra bracelet. Charting 50 years of the Alhambra. An illustration by Julie Joseph for VCA