When I worked in midtown Manhattan, a stroll down Fifth Avenue and a look at the passersby would pretty quickly reveal the jewelry that was at a peak of popularity. Now, I live and work in Greenwich Village and do a lot of trend spotting at Soul Cycle. Yes, people accessorize their spandex with fine jewelry. Anyway, one piece I have been shocked to see repeatedly is Van Cleef & Arpels’ Alhambra pendant necklaces.
I am not surprised that the Alhambra is popular. It has been for eons. What has astonished me is the level of obsession right now. When a jewel doesn’t come off for a serious sweat session that’s a personal talisman. Plus, it’s slightly dangerous. It is possible to damage the gems in the jewel with that kind of intense activity, but I digress. It’s the level of infatuation with the Van Cleef & Arpels style that’s astonishing.
In May, Van Cleef & Arpels kicked off its 50th anniversary celebrations of the design with lavish festivities for an international group of press in Marrakech. It’s the kind of event that would usually reignite the popularity of an iconic item, but for Van Cleef it was more of a victory lap and a recognition of the history of the design.
Originally created in 1968, the lucky charm motif was inspired by a four-leaf clover. The first renditions of the jewel were long gold chains with 20-gold clover stations. The surface of each was creased and edged in gold beads. Soon the French firm began adding colorful hardstones such coral, lapis, onyx and malachite as well as mother-of-pearl and rock crystal to the necklace.
When the Alhambra was originally launched on the eve of the 1970s, it captured the spirit of the era. Women wanted toss-on, carry-off jewels that dressed up their button-down shirts and skirts. Supermodel Karen Graham showed how to wear the look to perfection in a 1973 photograph taken by Kourken Pakchanian for American Vogue. French actress Romy Schneider wore an onyx and gold Alhambra in the provocative film Le Mouton Enragé (Love On Top), released in 1974, about relationships during the sexual revolution. By the end of the decade, Grace Kelly had acquired a few Alhambra necklaces and a large crystal Alhambra pendant. She wore them perpetually during the period and certainly added to the popularity.
While Van Cleef & Arpels has consistently made Alhambras for the last 50-years, the style really picked up momentum again in the aughts when new renditions were introduced, long chains once again became the mode and celebrities embraced it. Reese Witherspoon was constantly photographed in her Alhambra necklace. Sharon Stone and Mariah Carey were also fans of the style. Kelly Rutherford wore several variations of Alhambra jewels as Lily van der Woodsen on Gossip Girl.
Flash forward to now and Alhambras can still be found on celebrities, royalty and in the movies. Mindy Kaling sported an Alhambra chain necklace in Ocean’s 8. Princess Charlene of Monaco has been spotted several times in the style. There are also those chic women who sport the look everywhere. Photographer Sonia Sieff, who is the epitome of modern French style, took a series of self-portraits for Van Cleef & Arpels 50th Anniversary Alhambra celebration wearing her own gold pendant necklace. The jewel is the same type I see on New York women at Soul Cycle. Sonia delightfully explains why she loves her Alhambra—the fit, the style, the luck, all of it— in the video below. I think her reasoning is pretty much universal.
French photographer Sonia Sieff on her Alhambra pendant necklace.