The centromere is a specialized chromosomal region that serves as the assembly site of the kinetochore. At the centromere, CENP-A nucleosomes form part of a chromatin landscape termed centrochromatin. This chromatin environment conveys epigenetic marks regulating kinetochore formation. Recent work sheds light on the intricate relationship between centrochromatin state, the CENP-A assembly pathway and the maintenance of centromere function. Here, we review the emerging picture of how chromatin affects mammalian kinetochore formation. We place particular emphasis on data obtained from Human Artificial Chromosome (HAC) biology and the targeted engineering of centrochromatin using synthetic HACs. We discuss implications of these findings, which indicate that a delicate balance of histone modifications and chromatin state dictates both de novo centromere formation and the maintenance of centromere identity in dividing cell populations.