Alhambra: The first feminist jewellery?

Paris, 1968: students building barricades; a giant youthquake exploding across the city; young women in jeans and mini skirts marching fast forward; a whimsical hippie trail to exotic spots; and the invention of Alhambra – the first feminist jewellery.

What? Surely the creation of a four-leaf clover shape in a chain of stones by Parisian jeweller Van Cleef & Arpels 50 years ago, when these riots took place, had little to do with free love, women’s liberation or the deep societal changes of that era?

But after watching a demonstration of the tiny trefoils being cut by hand from semi-precious stones and seeing the green garden of the French consul in Marrakesh, hosting a dressing-up tent containing an archive of the era’s hippie de luxe clothes from Paco Rabanne’s metallic weaves to Yves Saint Laurent’s desert fatigues, I became convinced that jewellery, like fashion, can tell a story of its time.

“It’s not necessarily about celebrating an anniversary, but it’s still quite symbolic: 50 years of continuous existence of a collection,” said Nicolas Bos, who is both CEO and Design Director of Van Cleef & Arpels. He added to the glitter of the stones being shaped by the company’s workers, by holding an evening dinner party with thousands of twinkling candles in the Moroccan El Badi Palace.

“I wanted to take you back to look at the archives, the history and also the research: how and when the Alhambra motif was created, its influence and how the jewellery has remained relevant throughout 50 years of changes – social and in style and design,” said the director. “And to review for us, for our clients and the industry, what is the meaning of this day-wear jewellery.”

The true meaning is that Van Cleef invented 50 years ago something relevant to its time – and to today: jewels that are bought by women, as much as for women. Although the director would not reveal the male-to-female ratio of its customers, I would be willing to bet that one of the most affordable examples – the yellow gold Byzantine Alhambra with the trefoil symbol, but without a stone – is often bought by a woman for herself, choosing between the varied Alhambra collections, which make up roughly half of Van Cleef’s total jewellery offering.

Nicolas Bos goes back to the birth of the Alhambra – although no-one knows why the name of the Spanish citadel was chosen by Van Cleef. He explains that the concept of daytime and ‘woman friendly’ jewellery can be traced in the company back to the 1950s, when Princess Grace of Monaco wore whimsical pieces from its range of golden cats or elephants alongside her formal tiaras and sumptuous jewels. Those smaller ‘daytime’ pieces were found in the new Van Cleef boutique that offered at that time a revolutionary lifestyle attitude to buying fine jewels.

The kind of jewellery that Alhambra defined from its start could be seen as decoration that sees the light of day. Unlike high jewellery, it was not connected in the mind with grand and formal evening events.

“You can feel that beside the barricades, in 1968 that there was more than just something in the air, it was a way to express something – and that is what connects fine jewellery to real life,” says Nicolas Bos. “High jewellery is something I love – we will always remember something exceptional and out of this world. But those magical pieces are beyond expensive and nothing to do with everyday life. The Alhambra, to me, connects fine jewellery with tradition and with women getting more independent. At the same time, they are still appreciating an element of refinement and long-lasting value – and an element of transgression.”

The concept of change through continuity and legacy, rather than coming from behind the barricades, is a neat metaphor. Put more simply, ‘luxury’– even in the context of jewellery – can have a relatively low starting point. And that might be a lure to those millennials, born with the internet, who may not be big on the concepts of heritage and history.

I watched the hand-workers cut with absolute precision the outline in stones that can be as varied as black onyx to milky mother-of-pearl or translucent rock crystal. The shape alone can literally be traced to the quatrefoil architectural shapes across Arabia and including the decoration of the Doge’s Palace in Venice. And, of course, to the lucky four-leaf clover.

Does this really have a deep resonance with the French historical events of half a century ago? I asked Nicolas Bos who replied, “I think in France, we love revolutions and strikes, there is always this idea that for something to be born, the past has to die. It is very different in the UK and many countries, like Japan, and in Asia. I think from that period of 1968, Alhambra is an expression of change through continuity coming from Paris workshops which of course had nothing to do with the barricades. It expresses continuity and legacy instead of focusing on the idea that we have to burn everything to be reborn. It may seem a bit presumptuous, but I think that’s what we feel about what we do. I believe and hope that there is still some relevance in luxury today.”