Younghee Suh Transforms Alhambra Jewellery Into Art
The Alhambra is one-of-a-kind jewellery that’s instantly recognisable on its own, sans branding and logo. The motif is ancient, redolent of Gothic architecture, columns and arches, but is now the prerogative of Van Cleef & Arpels, ever since the first sautoir necklace with the quatrefoil design made its way to the house in 1968.
Paying tribute to more than half a century of the Alhambra and its emblematic gold crafts, Van Cleef & Arpels partnered with Korean artistic director Younghee Suh. Through a series of poetic photographs that showcase the new collection with handmade hanji paper, Suh highlights the radiant guilloché and the ever-charming golden beads of the Alhambra collection.
The Origins of the Alhambra
“To have luck, you have to believe in luck,” was a favourite saying of Jacques Arpels, nephew of the maison’s co-founder Estelle Arpels. But merely believing in it might not be enough for some. The French have something they call a porte-bonheur or luck-carrier, a talisman or lucky charm that acts as a magnet to attract good fortune to the wearer.
Jacques Arpels believed strongly in the talismanic powers of the porte-bonheur. A born collector, he’d gather four-leaf clovers from the garden of his house in Germigny-l’Évêque and present them to his staff, along with the poem Don’t Quit, believed to have been written by the American John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892), as an encouragement for them never to give up hope. The four-leaf-clover motif endured, making its first appearance in Van Cleef & Arpels’ records in the Roaring Twenties.
But the Alhambra was born in 1968. It was a somewhat ordinary birth – the pendant that bore the name was a small four-petaled object in plain gold for a client of no great importance. But with its name, Alhambra, it would soon become one of the world’s most famous and most recognisable pieces of jewellery.
“The Alhambra long necklace captured the spirit of the age and introduced new ways of wearing jewels in everyday life,” says Nicolas Bos, president and CEO of Van Cleef & Arpels. “Fifty years later, it stands as a reference that’s profoundly influenced the history of jewellery.”
The quatrefoil shape, like the four-leaf clover with which Jacques Arpels was so infatuated, was among the easy-to-wear pieces that were offered in the Paris la Boutique range, which also included Van Cleef & Arpels’ legendary animal clips and Philippine rings, bangles of hard stone or coral set with diamonds at their centres.
The yellow-gold model of 1968 quickly gave way to bold combinations of materials – yellow, white, and rose gold – adorned with coloured gemstones, diamonds and natural materials. The Alhambra, with its fluid silhouettes and variations, was the fashion item of the ’60s and ’70s. Jewellery had a talismanic quality to it, as a 1977 advertisement from this period would show: “At la Boutique Van Cleef & Arpels, 22 Place Vendôme, you will find sensitive jewels, tender jewels, meaningful jewels. And faithful jewels that will never leave you.”
Alhambra and guillochage
Assembling and polishing of the Alhambra jewellery
In 2018, the Alhambra was given a new treatment. Guillochage, a machine-cutting technique used to adorn watch dials in the 1910s, and also boxes and minaudières in the 1930s, made its way to the Alhambra collection for the first time. Hand-guillochage is a centuries-old technique, in which craftsmen repeatedly etch lines and miniature shapes to form geometric motifs on the surface of a watch dial or piece of jewellery – a skill requiring the deepest concentration, patience and deft hands.
For the Alhambra, Van Cleef & Arpels’ craftsmen make shallow incisions that radiate from the centre like sun rays, endowing the surface of the four-leaf clover with a subtle relief effect that plays with the light when the wearer moves. The golden pearls that surround the quatrefoil design are delicate and smooth, the monochromatic colour tones adding just a hint of textural contrast to the jewellery piece.
Younghee Suh’s Inspired Art
When Suh saw the guilloché Alhambra pendants, she was immediately inspired by its distinct and uniform edged lines, making a connection between the sunray motif with a monochromatic style of art popularised in Korea by an artist named Lee Ufan.
“Lee, the master of this art, is known for using countless dots or dotted lines on hanji (traditional Korean paper). Symbolising the relationship between space and time, these motifs reminded me of the guilloché pattern,” says Suh. “The maison’s guilloché technique creates uniform lines with exact repetitive spacing between them, highlighting the elegant flow of light reflection, just like rays of sunlight.
“I also used hanji paper for the decor, like many monochromatic artists, along with the clustered and scattered dots to complete the pattern. It expresses the splendid radiance of the guilloché Alhambra creations,” says Suh.
Two exclusive images shared with this publication depict how the Alhambra jewellery shines on top of the hanji paper that Suh has delicately folded to depict the guilloché pattern and the shape of the jewellery. In one, the Vintage Alhambra 20-motif long necklace in guilloché yellow gold and diamonds is coiled; Suh mirrors its beauty on paper with a scattering of golden beads that depict each of the 20 quatrefoil motifs. In the other, the precise etched lines of the guilloché pattern are mimicked on the paper in careful detail. A dazzling combination of paper and gold, beautifully paying tribute to more than 50 years of the Alhambra.