The high jewellery maison Van Cleef & Arpels in Marrakech - Hashtag Legend

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The high jewellery maison Van Cleef & Arpels in Marrakech

Jul 09, 2018

Alhambra collection

Do you believe in luck? Well, I do – and I’m in good company. Jacques Arpels, the nephew of Van Cleef & Arpels co-founder Estelle Arpels, once said: “To be lucky, you have to believe in luck.”

The iconic Alhambra motif, which is in the shape of the four-leaf clover, was first unveiled by the maison back in 1968. Half a century on, it’s still a symbol at the core of Van Cleef & Arpels and, as luck would have it, we were invited to Marrakech to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Alhambra – with a global event simply named “Luck”.

Marrakech is one of those must-visit wanderlust spots on every traveller’s bucket list. The name of this western Moroccan city conjures postcard-perfect images of distant lands and beauty. With the heavy cultural influence of the French occupation (1912–1956) continuing to linger, most inhabitants speak Arabic and French equally well. La Mamounia was our humble abode during our stay in Marrakech – and this palace hotel alone would make any digital influencer or KOL light up with ecstasy and turn green with envy. The entire hotel looks like it was tailor-made for Instagram, with awe-inspiring scenery and breathtaking views wherever you cast your eye.

Gordon's gift from Van Cleef & Arpels

Our welcome dinner was held at La Grande Table Française at the Royal Mansour hotel; it was hosted by the maison’s newly appointed Asia-Pacific president, Nicolas Luchsinger, along with 40-plus press from around the Asia region. Needless to say, the cuisine was spectacular. Van Cleef & Arpels flew in chef Yannick Alléno (of three-Michelin-starred Alléno Paris) to tantalise the taste buds of the international press. The master chef introduced a Moroccan twist of flavours into traditional French cuisine, offering a range of specialities including spider crab, Moroccan black truffles, lobsters and wagyu beef.

The following day kicked off our discovery of the lucky journey of Alhambra. For our first stop, we were taken to the beautiful house owned by the current French consul-general in Marrakech. We were greeted with welcome drinks en route to the courtyard, where we marvelled at the delicate craftsmanship from the Van Cleef & Arpels team as they demonstrated their skills on the latest collection of Alhambra designs – these come in different auspicious natural materials such as mother-of-pearl, onyx, carnelian, tiger’s eye and malachite. These refined Alhambra pieces also allow you the choice of embedding them in your preferred combination, in yellow gold or white gold. I had my eye on the black onyx with white gold before we departed from Hong Kong, as we were all given a card with the different choices so we could pick a favourite. Little did our chaperone (Jeannie Guo from the Van Cleef & Arpels Hong Kong team) know that I had guessed we’d be given one of these refined pieces as a gift during our lucky journey… well, I did have a hunch.In fact, once our craftsmanship tour finished, we were led into the French consul’s house, where Stéphanie Rault, the brand’s managing director for Hong Kong and Macau, gleefully announced that all the Hong Kong press could get a customised Alhambra necklace with their own selection of combinations to wear for our lucky journey. Hunch confirmed!

While we were waiting for our special gift in the beautiful garden area where the lunch buffet and beverages were being served, I had interviews arranged for me with two of my favourite people. The first was with Nicholas Foulkes, the stylish, eccentric author and journalist from London who recently collaborated with Van Cleef & Arpels on a coffee-table book about the history on Alhambra, bringing all the collaborators from around the world into this visually stunning read.

Gordon meets Nicholas Foulkes, a journalist from London

Just before I started my interview with Nicholas, while trying to set up the position of the camera angle, I hastily sat on a soft Moroccan cushion – which looked quite sturdy at the time, but in fact was soft as a feather. As I lowered my derrière and began to descend, I sank faster than the Titanic. In slow motion, I’m sure I would have looked absolutely ridiculous, trying to hold on for dear life and refusing to hit rock bottom. (In hindsight, sometimes you just have to go with the flow.) Unfortunately, I fell flat on my backside and while doing that, I happened to lock up my spine with one of my slipped discs from an old injury. While I tried desperately to salvage my wounded pride, I literally had to bite down hard to hide my severe pain during the interview. Right after that, I knew my back was in serious trouble. In a foreign country with no previous medical history, immediately finding a doctor to come ease my pain with a heavy dose of anti-inflammatory injections seemed to be mission impossible. As I limped back from one end of the garden to the buffet area like a casualty of war, everyone from the other press group and the Van Cleef & Arpels’ international team was wondering what could have possibly happened during my chat with Nicholas.My second interview was with Sonia Sieff, the very talented and beautiful French photographer; her father, Jeanloup Sieff, was also a renowned fashion photographer who shot the infamous naked photo of the late Yves Saint Laurent in black and white. Of course, Sonia had no idea what had happened to me prior to her interview. As she awaited my arrival, I was helped along by my trusted friend Frédéric Rebelo, Van Cleef & Arpels’ Asia-Pacific regional marketing and communications director – like a BFF, with my arm draped around his shoulder, carrying me onwards to meet Ms Sieff. To be honest, she was tremendously nice to me; maybe she thought I had a certain physical affliction and was too polite to ask. I actually conducted the entire interview on both knees, kneeling in front of her as if she was a goddess I worshipped.

Gordon meets french photographer Sonia Sieff, daughter of Jeanloup Sieff

Within 30 minutes, the local doctor arrived for an emergency house call with just the right dosage for an injection to ease my pain – and all I can say is a huge thanks to everyone from the Van Cleef & Arpels team from the bottom of my heart. This was indeed a miracle and I literally recovered within minutes, believe it or not. Lady Luck was certainly smiling at me that day – or maybe it was the power of my personalised Alhambra with black onyx in white gold! In fact, black onyx is believed have the magical power to eliminate negative thinking and brings spiritual inspiration.

Garden view

Once I had recovered, I was led into a marquee where original vintage 1960s and ’70s designer clothes from labels such as YSL, Chloé and Paco Rabanne were laid out for guests to do a quick makeover, along with a stylist and hair and make-up artists on hand to get us prepared in the most professional way. As a commemorative gift from Van Cleef & Arpels, the maison also flew in renowned portrait photographer Patrick Swirc from Paris to do a photo shoot for us. Since I’m a naturally stylish guy, I handled all the styling myself and opted for the “Brokeback Mountain” look after my tragic back incident – no pun intended!

The afternoon excursion to the Musée Yves Saint Laurent was nothing less than spectacular. Van Cleef & Arpels closed off the entire gallery for the day so all the press could take a private tour of the museum, which is entirely dedicated to the work of the legendary designer who was synonymous with the city of Marrakech. From historical photos to some of the most iconic masterpieces he designed, as well as video clips of his past interviews and fashion shows, there was something for everyone. We then ventured next door to Jardin Majorelle, which was the humble abode of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé from 1980 to 2008. This two-and-a-half acre botanical garden and artistic landscape is an absolutely breathtaking masterpiece. Jardin Majorelle is one of the most-visited sites in Morocco; it took French painter Jacques Majorelle (1886–1962) some 40 years of dedication to create this enchanting garden before the pair bought the site in 1980 and began to restore it. The evening hosted by Van Cleef & Arpels at El Badi Palace was the highlight of the entire trip.

Famous market square Jemaa el-Fnaa

The palace dates to 1578, when it was commissioned by Sultan Ahmed al-Mansur of the Saadi dynasty; it was finally completed in 1593. About 100-plus press from around the world entered the palace for the first time and witnessed 10,000 oil lamps lighting up the entire space. Maybe it’s cliché to say, but there are truly no words to describe the scene – just the word “Wow!” Within the palace, Van Cleef & Arpels also built a massive marquee with reflective materials, making it appear like a house with giant mirrors and serving as the perfect setting for a beautiful dinner under the Moroccan sky. Our final day was spent with a lovely luncheon at Le Pavillon at the Selman hotel, where specially trained Arabian horses performed in front of us. Everyone got a chance to get up close and personal with these incredible, majestic creatures for our own individual photo-ops while enjoying traditional Moroccan tea made with local herbs. Then we were whisked off to the famed market square, Jemaa el-Fnaa – a hustling, bustling place with an eclectic mix of street performers, food vendors, snake charmers and more. It’s a labyrinth of shops and it’s easy to get lost in the maze without a tour guide. All in all, visiting Marrakech for the first time was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience and a memorable trip for the ages. On a personal note, this journey was indeed a lucky one for me. For all the Hong Kong press and the Van Cleef & Arpels Hong Kong team who enjoyed my photo in my La Perla swimming trunks, which became a major talking point throughout our trip – well, lucky you! In fact, the topic of my La Perla swimwear bonded all of us together even tighter than my trunks. This story, I’m afraid, will have to be continued on my next lucky journey with Van Cleef & Arpels, dear reader.

This feature originally appeared in July/August print issue of #legend.


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Gordon Lam