The sparkle of la dolce vita

MAY 2015 – From jewellery glittering with colourful precious stones to sophisticated scents and accessories, not to mention hotels, Bulgari is a long-standing hallmark of seductive indulgence.

Bulgari’s glamorous gems, whether set in bracelets, necklaces, rings, earrings or brooches, have an undeniably spine-tingling effect on women. While most of us fear the snake, the allure and beauty of the brand’s iconic Serpenti Collection awakens an altogether opposite emotion.

The serpent has been one of Bulgari’s most emblematic symbols since the 1940s, when the company first created bracelet-watches in the form of a snake, but the heritage of this Roman-Greco brand stretches back even further.

The story starts with a man named Sotirios Bulgaris, a Greek silversmith from a long line of artisans who immigrated to Italy in the 1880s.

Sotirios set up his first shop in Rome’s Via Sistina in 1884. Working all hours of the day, he crafted distinctive silver accessories modelled on a Neo-Hellenic style that combined Byzantine and Islamic design elements. His pieces featured allegorical, floral and foliate motifs and proved a big success,  especially with English tourists visiting Rome, and paved the way for expanding the family business.

Ten years later, in 1894, Sotirios Italianicised his name, becoming Sotirio Bulgari, and opened a shop on Rome’s Via Condotti. From here he traded a variety of goods, ranging from his silver creations to antiques, bric-a-brac and jewellery. In 1905, the shop moved to its current location at 10 Via Condotti,  where it still serves as the flagship store for the 130-year-old brand. Originally called the ‘Old Curiosity Shop’ to capitalise on the tourist market, it was renamed Bulgari in 1934, two years after Sotirio’s death.

Together with the name change came a  renewed focus on jewellery, with Sotirio’s sons, Giorgio and Costantino, taking the business back to its creative origins.

It was during the 1930s that Bulgari created one of its most popular designs,  the Trombino ring. The name derives from its shape, which is reminiscent of a small trumpet. Giorgio Bulgari is said to have given one of the first examples of this now iconic design to his future wife, Leonilde.

It was in the 1940s, though, that the most radical changes to the brand’s core business took place. Restrictions imposed by World War II saw Bulgari move away from working in silver and platinum and start to produce jewellery in gold, with colourful precious gemstones used as embellishments.  Following fashion, they also moved away from the geometric Art Deco shapes of previous decades and started to take their inspiration from more natural shapes – such as the sinuous snake.

The first exemplars of the serpent motif appeared in the late 1940s when Bulgari launched its first bracelet watches. These were highly stylised designs with coils realised either in tubogas or in gold mesh that wrapped around the wrist and harked back to Ancient Greek and Roman designs, where the snake was  an emblem of wisdom and eternity. This watch was subsequently made in increasingly varied versions, with every possible case and dial shape.

Versions are still made today, with the current Serpenti Collection including not only bracelets and watches but rings, sunglasses and handbags. The jewellery is still made by hand, too, with artisans taking 150 hours to meticulously craft a small bracelet.

The company distinguished itself from the competition still further in the 1950s, when it began to develop its own strong design aesthetic. Moving away from the trends set in fashion design capital Paris, it developed a distinctive style based on structured, symmetrical shapes, almost always made in yellow gold.

This period also saw a ‘colour revolution’ with Bulgari designers developing highly personal colour combinations. They abandoned the traditional emerald-ruby-sapphire triad associated exclusively with diamonds and started to choose  gems for their colour rather than their intrinsic value. Bulgari creations became multicoloured and the chromatic combinations more and more daring.

Another break from the norm was a generous use of cabochon – highly polished, convex-cut and unfaceted – stones in prominent positions. Traditionally, the cabochon cut had been reserved for gemstones of lesser value, but Bulgari made it a hallmark regardless of a stone’s worth. It marked the birth of an “Italian School” of jewellery with Bulgari at its centre.

Bulgari’s bold, colourful creations were a hit with the international jet-set, and the endorsement of style icons and celebrities such as Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida soon catapulted the brand to new heights. Richard Burton is reported to have given Elizabeth Taylor dozens of Bulgari pieces, beginning with an emerald and sapphire ring that he presented to her on the set of Cleopatra in 1963. “I introduced her to beer,” the Welsh actor once said, “and she introduced me to Bulgari.” In a January 2003 interview, Taylor recalled that whenever Burton showed up with a package from the Via Condotti jewellers, “I would jump on top of him and practically make love to him in Bulgari”.

The 1970s saw the brand spread across Europe and into the American market, with stores opening in New York, Geneva, Monte Carlo and Paris. It was also a period of eclectic creativity, with designers drawing inspiration from both modern and ancient sources for its striking designs.

In the Pop Art spirit, everyday objects like playing cards or ice creams were turned into playful jewels and, following the opening of its New York store, a line called Star Spangled Banner was launched, which used red and blue enamel or lapis lazuli to bring the colours of the American flag to fun pieces. In fact Andy Warhol once remarked that “for me calling at Bulgari’s shop is like visiting the best exhibition of contemporary art”.

Meanwhile, in a break from the brand’s usually colourful creations, the popular Monete range set ancient coins with pavé diamonds and mother-of-pearl on pink and yellow gold. These ‘historical’ pieces soon became another emblem of the fast-expanding brand, and the range was relaunched in 2012.

It was also in the 1970s that Bulgari introduced its still important principle of ‘wearability’. According to this idea, jewellery needs to be suitable for any occasion, not just for grand events. Bulgari started setting most of its creations in yellow gold, which it believes allows even the most valuable jewels to be worn in an informal manner.

Another of its iconic ranges that had its beginnings in the 1970s is Bulgari Bulgari. It was introduced in 1977, with the launch of the brand’s first men’s watch and saw, for the first time ever, a logo became the prominent decorative element in a piece of high jewellery.

The Bulgari success story continued into the extravagant 1980s, where its bold, striking designs found a natural market. But its designers continued to experiment and innovate, especially when it came to making jewellery more ‘wearable’. Coloured silk cords – never before used for the purpose of holding fine gems – were introduced, and steel and ceramic also started to make an appearance.

Further innovation followed when Bulgari expanded into the fragrance market, releasing Eau Parfumée au Thé Vert in 1992. It’s a venture that proved hugely popular and the perfume range has expanded in leaps and bounds since, with top noses such as Alberto Morillas, Jacques Cavallier and Daniela Andrier hired to create quality scents that embody Bulgari’s exuberant style.

Its most recent fragrance release is called La Gemme, and takes its inspiration from the colourful gemstones so synonymous with Bulgari jewellery. Created in collaboration with Givaudan perfumer Daniela Andrier, each of the six fragrances is inspired by a different gem and is packaged in a distinctive flacon with a brightly coloured top representative of that stone. “I have a very poetic relationship with precious stones, which are a true source of inspiration,” says Andrier. “The way Bulgari exalts precious stones is very mysterious and even magical. For a woman, a fragrance is like a jewel, an ornament and a form of light: for me, there is a clear analogy”.

The 1990s also saw the launch of Bulgari eyewear and accessories, including bags, belts and wallets. In the true spirit of Bulgari, these are made from colourful, exotic leathers and exude both the brand’s luxury values and its sense of uninhibited joie de vivre.

The 21st-century has seen even more diversification. In 2001 Bulgari signed a joint venture with Marriott International to create Bulgari Hotels & Resorts in exclusive locations worldwide. The first hotel opened in Milan in 2004 and the first resort in Bali in 2006. Restaurants in Tokyo and Osaka have followed, as well as a hotel in London. Further projects are set to complete in Shanghai, Beijing and Dubai in 2016 and 2017.

Another milestone moment was in March 2011, when LVMH acquired the brand then ranked as the world’s third-largest jeweller by purchasing the Bulgari family’s 50.4 percent stake in the company.

Three years later, in 2014, Bulgari celebrated its 130th anniversary. In honour of the occasion, it released a
silver and ceramic Save the Children pendant as part of its B.zero1 line. A hit with a new generation of style icons, it joins the B.zero1 Save the Children ring launched in 2010, both of which have raised tens of millions of dollars for the global charity.

As the brand continues to evolve, cutting edge design and quality craftsmanship continue as core values. The ‘serpenti’, a symbol as old as time, is still as mesmerising today as when Elizabeth Taylor portrayed the iconic Cleopatra – and women across the globe continue to sparkle in Bulgari’s wearable creations.

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