Bulgari: A Century of Italian Opulence
For world jewelry lovers, Bulgari stands for the beauty of Rome, the "Eternal City" of art and inspiration. Prized for its jewels of daring scale and bold color effects, The Bulgari family creates ultramodern work, thoughtfully drawing ideas from Italy’s Graeco-Roman heritage and transforming them with artistic discipline and Italian casual elegance.
Bulgari Via Condotti Flagship Boutique (credit: Bulgari)
With its roots in the late 19th century, Bulgari was built by a Greek immigrant jeweler, Sotirios Boulgaris—who later Romanized the family name to "Bulgari"—with a passion for the metalwork of Renaissance Rome. Sotirios Bulgari’s little shop of treasures in the Via Sistina was filled with precious artifacts of Roman gold and silversmiths, but discerning clients soon came looking for the original jewelry he created. By the 1920s, Sotirios and his workshop were designing jewels in the international Art Deco style, and had moved to the glamorous Via Condotti, just down from the Spanish steps. Interpreted with more color and curves, and less severity and rigor, Art Deco jewelry at Bulgari was softened and enriched with calibré and cabochon colored gems, often set among a profusion of fancy shaped diamonds. By the 1930s, Bulgari fluidly incorporated a sense of volume into their jewels, something which came naturally to a firm steeped in the monumental forms of ancient Rome. In 1932, Bulgari introduced its signature Trombino design, an enduringly popular ring centering a large colored gem flanked by vertically-oriented baguettes. The Trombino is a little giant of volume inspired by the lightness of domed Roman spaces, from the Pantheon to St. Peter’s. Thoughtfully engineered to distribute its domed mass, the Trombino is lightly balanced on the finger.
Throughout the difficult war years, the firm looked to international art movements, and in particular, to Paris, for design concepts. Bulgari’s voluminous 1940s gold bracelets, with their unique and complex conical forms, are rare and desirable finds. During the 1950s, Bulgari jewelry celebrated the graceful platinum and diamond style that accompanied couture’s "New Look." Even then, however, Bulgari’s work expressed a vibrant sculptural quality and adherence to strong, sensuous lines, as exemplified by this naturalistic diamond leaf.
By the late 1950s, the second and third generations of the Bulgari family found the confidence to pioneer a new, independent style, one that expressed their modern aesthetic as well as their Greek and Roman heritage. During this time, Italian society was in transformation, fully expressing its natural spontaneity and casual elegance. Liberated from formality and restrictions that had been relaxed with the end of the world war, they approached life with casual confidence and drew on their innate sophistication and grace. Hollywood and Cinecittà, Rome’s movie capital, captured this spirit in wildly popular movies. An eager world audience devoured this novel cinematic school of hedonism and bold social commentary, all filmed in the gorgeous playland of Rome before the age of mass tourism. Added to this sensational artistic atmosphere was a renewed appreciation for "sprezzatura," the natural Italian gift for casual, effortless style. It is easy to take Bulgari’s unique, forthright jewelry for granted as slick and sumptuous, but in fact their design style represents the firm’s thoughtful and artistic response to this revolutionary period in Rome.
Marisa Berenson in Bulgari Necklace, Shot for Vogue by Gianni Turillazzi, circa September 1970 (credit: Condè Nast)
By the 1960s, Bulgari had invented jewelry forms characterized by smooth, linear contours and rhythms of repeated concentric or patterned motifs, purified of excess ornament. They broke age-old jewelry conventions by boldly pairing precious and semi-precious stones, concerned only with achieving daring chromatic effects. The family had spent years considering how to refine their jewelry style to blend the casual and formal, to create jewels that women would want to wear all day, for all occasions. Their full-on embrace of warm yellow gold as a setting for even the most valuable stones invited the wearer to ignore the longstanding rules imposed by norms of "taste" and "occasion." Important gems mounted in gold were suspended from unassuming silk cords or combined with porcelain beads, expressing a spirit of studied negligence and sly humor, irreverently pairing the precious and the humble. Further, the family refused to adhere to any manifesto about design inspiration, freely harvesting ideas from industrial forms to nature to the ancient world. Thus, by 1963, one observer noted, Bulgari jewels were as instantly recognizable as the couture of Coco Chanel; their seductive creations were adored by Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren, Grace Kelly, and Audrey Hepburn.
A beloved style pioneered by Nicola Bulgari was the Gemme Nummarie, or Bulgari's "Monete" collection. These ancient coin jewels in pared-down modern settings allowed the family to express their reverence for Italy’s combined Greek and Roman art heritage, while exploring contemporary settings. Bulgari experts in the science and art of numismatics combed the coin markets for beautiful specimens dating from the Classical world and beyond. Ancient Greek coins, including those minted in the prosperous colonies of Ancient Italy, feature refined portraiture and modeling that were never again equaled in history. Whether issued in the dynamic city-states that were powerhouses of science and art, or in the far reaches of Alexander’s empire, these coins stand as miniature works of art, evocatively softened over the centuries by the touch of ancient hands. The jewels are intended as a living way to celebrate the cultural and aesthetic interchange that accompanied trade among ancient cultures, both within the Mediterranean world and along the early Silk Road. Comprising earrings, necklaces and bracelets, "Monete" features highly polished gold settings of striking simplicity that enhance the coins’ rich, textured patinas. These ancient-to-modern, time-bending jewels are often punctuated by sparkling diamonds or so-called "pippoli," the tiny, vibrantly-colored cabochon gems that provide just the right touch of vivid, eye-catching pop.
Another signature motif Bulgari selected from the eternally present art of ancient Greece and Rome is the coiled serpent, a symbol of love, wisdom and eternity. In antiquity, snake bracelets were worn as pairs on the upper or lower arms. In the 1940s, Bulgari designers re-envisioned the serpent as an ultra-flexible timepiece, with a covered dial cleverly concealed in the head. The classic Bulgari three-coil gold serpent wristwatch, sometimes enhanced with diamonds and colored stones, became an immediate best-seller. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, inventive variations, including multi-color enamel and beaded versions, joined the "Serpenti" family.
Elizabeth Taylor on the set of Cleopatra in 1962, wearing a Bulgari "Serpenti" Bracelet Watch (credit: La Presse / Bulgari)
Liz Taylor wore her gold and diamond Bulgari snake watch on the set of Cleopatra, and, obviously, no one complained about the anachronism. Masterful technical engineering lends these opulent jewels their sensuous, life-like feel. Skilled artisans train for years to learn the complex technique of working gold strips, up to five meters for some models, into just the right degree of tension. For purist collectors, the 1970s "Serpenti" jewels evolved into abstract modernist forms rigorously pared back to a spiraling coil and sleek blank dial. These flexible bracelets are a celebration of the unique malleability of gold, a tactile as well as a visual pleasure. Bulgari’s mastery of gold also means the jewels are weighted, articulated, and balanced just right on the body, heightening the wearer’s enjoyment of the metal’s unique softness and warmth.
A passionate collector of important jewelry, Andy Warhol offered discerning commentary on the artistic discipline and vision that characterized Bulgari design in the 20th century. He said, "When I am in Rome I always visit Bulgari because it is the most important museum of contemporary art." The thoughtful manner in which Bulgari has always created its lush, wearable, and abstract jewels did not escape Warhol’s admiration and understanding. Far more than a sleek and simple formula exploiting color and historical forms, Bulgari invented resonant and powerful jewelry using daring color, intellectual discipline and extraordinary skill. As Nicola Bulgari said, "We are always breaking our heads to do better."