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Van Cleef & Arpels Defends Alhambra Designs

Popularity has its pitfalls.

Popularity has its pitfalls.

Van Cleef & Arpels’ Alhambra jewelry line has been a hit among celebrities such as Cameron Diaz and Reese Witherspoon. The line works well with the current trend of wearing multiple necklaces at one time.

But the line’s high profile is also grabbing the attention of counterfeiters. As a result, Van Cleef & Arpels has filed in excess of 10 cases in the last year, primarily in federal courts in Florida and New York, to protect the line.

Four of the cases have settled or are close to settling, while the others are still pending. The company has also settled with seven other parties this year after they were served with letters of demand.

What makes the Van Cleef cases intriguing is that most luxury companies have to defend multiple trademarks and brands in a wide array of product categories and venues. But with Van Cleef, the company is seeing a spike in counterfeit activity with just the Alhambra jewelry line.

“A spurt of activity around one particular brand is unusual,” said Sheila Henderson, senior intellectual property counsel at Richemont International Ltd. Van Cleef is part of the Richemont stable of brands.

Vintage Alhambra pieces start at an average price point of $2,400 for a bracelet or ear studs. A 10-motif Alhambra necklace has an average price of $4,500, and the 20-motif necklace is $9,000. All the vintage Alhambra pieces are gold with white mother-of-pearl and a signature clover motif.

Last October, Van Cleef released the Centennial Alhambra Collection, which took inspiration from the vintage line from the Sixties. The new collection also included butterflies and flowers in mother-of-pearl, coral, turquoise and tigereye dangling from 18-karat yellow gold earrings, necklaces and bracelets.

The company launched an advertising campaign to draw attention to the Centennial release, Henderson said, but she doubts that the ads are responsible for the spike in infringements. Increased celebrity interest and the range and depth of the brand are more likely to be at the root of the problem, she said.

The company considers the Alhambra line one of its signature collections, and others in the industry acknowledge that it is a recognizable brand.

“The distinctive Alhambra design is iconic in the world of jewelry,” said Dawn Mello of Dawn Mello & Associates LLC, former president of Bergdorf Goodman and a former creative director of Gucci. “Van Cleef & Arpels has built a signature collection based on the Alhambra design, which has become emblematic of Van Cleef & Arpels.”

The high visibility is what is triggering the surge of counterfeits. Van Cleef’s cases filed in New York and Florida focused primarily on copyright violations. Jewelry, unlike apparel items, is subject to copyright protections under current U.S. intellectual property laws because it is considered an artistic work.

“Well-known, distinctive designs like the Alhambra that immediately cause the consumer to think of Van Cleef as the source of the goods should receive the broadest possible protection under trademark law,” said Louis Ederer, partner with Arnold & Porter LLP, who represents several luxury goods brand owners in intellectual property matters. “This is especially the case where jewelry designs are involved, because typically the brand owner does not affix the brand name to the jewelry item itself. So it is the distinctive design that becomes the signature of the brand owner, indicating to the consumer who the product comes from or what brand the consumer is buying.”