A Tubogas bracelet in two-colour gold with Roman imperial bronze coins, circa 1975 from Roma, Passion, Jewels.

NEW YORK - Perhaps it is because I know and love their style, but the name Bulgari – according to Richard Burton, the only word of Italian Elizabeth Taylor knew – has a strength and hauteur that for me, immediately evokes Italian glamour. The rigour of Bulgari’s perfectly proportioned, architectural silhouettes, and the severity of their linear compositions, are countered with the voluptuousness of monumental glossy cabochon stones, the sumptuous richness of yellow gold and the exuberance of explosive, often shocking gem colour. The perfect balance of Roman classicism with Italian sensuality, Bulgari style is Italian style.

So typically Italian too is its whole design philosophy, which was conceived and nurtured by the close-knit Bulgari family. The dynasty of jewellers was founded in Rome in 1884, by the Greek silversmith Sotirio Bulgari who moved to Italy to make his way in the world. Sotirio’s sons Costantino and Giorgio set the company on the road to design-driven jewellery, influenced by visits to Paris early in the 20th century, but it was Giorgio’s sons, Paolo and Nicola (with the visionary Gianni who left the company in 1985), who were responsible for shaping the distinctive Bulgari identity and brand. Both formidable characters, they have remained famously reticent, retaining the mystique of true 1960s stardom. But now, a new book, Roma, Passion, Jewels (Electa) tells their story through a series of interviews by historian Vincent Meylan, lifting the lid on a jewel-box of family reminiscences that reveal their themes, inspirations and motivations and, as the book describes, their passions, for Rome, jewels, gems and much else besides.

Earrings in platinum with emeralds and diamonds, 2014 (CHF295,000–485,000).

Memories, liberally sprinkled with anecdotes, pile on the glamour, with stories of great collectors and clients, like Barbara Hutton, who left a ruby and diamond Bulgari necklace under the pillow of her hostess, Countess di Frasso, as a thank you for staying in her house in Rome. Such details add riveting social and cultural background, and a very personal, human imprint, to the quintessential Bulgari aesthetic. Now part of contemporary design history, that distinctive style, so revolutionary at the time, burst into being in the 1960s, fuelled by the Italian economic miracle, a reaction to the hardship and deprivation of the Second World War. The book charts the meteoric rise of the business and its success in the 1970s and 1980s: In the early 1970s, with the influx and influence of Middle Eastern wealth, the Bulgaris would travel to the region extensively, with some 40 to 50 boxes of jewellery, doing business in the early hours of the morning, as the days were too hot. 

Paolo and Nicola Bulgari, Bulgari's heaquarters in Rome, 2014. Photo: Stefano Galuzzi.

In the 1960s and 1970s, in tune with the social and fashion revolution of the day, the Bulgari brothers – Paolo, the gem expert, called the Lord of the Stones, who wanted to be an architect, and Nicola, the aesthete, collector and design conceptualist, who loved archaeology – instigated a new, more casual approach to fine and high jewellery that was effortlessly wearable, more daringly design-driven and stylised but infused with historical and cultural meaning. It was in the 1960s, for example, that they introduced their celebrated Monete jewels, set with ancient Greek and Roman coins, which Nicola collected. A group of Bulgari jewels in Sotheby’s sale of Magnificent Jewels in Geneva this May includes one of the most striking of all Monete designs: the deep spiralling collar, with four bands of tubogas, the springy coiled “gas-pipe” chain, in different coloured golds, set with antique coins. It is a contemporary classic that massively influenced jewellery of the 1970s and 1980s, and still looks so right, and so chic today.

Gold and ancient Greek silver coin choker, “Gemme Nummarie,” Bulgari.(CHF15,000–20,000).

Paolo Bulgari, meanwhile, was responsible for introducing the lavish coloured gemstones and the provocative, unexpected combinations and contrasts for which Bulgari is famous. He drew on his Italian heritage, on the Renaissance richness of deep, dark cabochon gems, to play not only with intense colour, but with light, sheen, translucency and texture. In the book, he recounts how in 1966 he took his father’s place and revelled in the glorious abundance of extraordinary coloured gems available for him to buy, many of them from princely Indian families. He tells too how he can hold a stone in his hand, and immediately knows, without looking at it, whether it has been cut correctly. Even today, every day, he spends time in his office in Rome, with fabulously rare and precious gems spread out on a table before him, arranging them, playing with colour and shape, creating new jewels. His expertise is world-renowned, so that when a Bulgari jewel appears at auction, set with an important coloured gem, of charisma and character, such as the pair of ear-clips, each set with a cushion-cut emerald, in the Geneva sale at Sotheby’s, the jewel has a special cachet and allure, and a personal stamp of quality.

What is most fascinating perhaps is the part that Bulgari played in the legend of La Dolce Vita, the years when Rome was the centre of the world of style, and became known as Hollywood on the Tiber. Nicola explains that the concept of La Dolce Vita was generated by Clare Boothe Luce, the writer, socialite, jewel-lover and US ambassador to Italy in the 1950s. Finding Rome boring, Luce began to lure her intellectual friends to the Eternal City, persuading artists, writers and filmmakers to come visit Rome’s attractions. Bulgari’s jewels, delectable and sensual, epitomised the sweetness of life, and their Via Condotti store was a meeting place for the rich, famous and artistic. All the glamorous stars of Cinecittà. Anita Ekberg, Claudia Cardinale, Gina Lollobrigida, Sophia Loren and of course Elizabeth Taylor were devoted to Bulgari. Looking back, Nicola Bulgari recalls the time he turned down Andy Warhol’s offer of his paintings in exchange for Bulgari jewels. “It was,” he now says, “the worst deal of my life.” But a great story, and one that tells all about the art of Bulgari.

Vivienne Becker is a jewellery historian and contributing editor for FT’s How to Spend It.

Roma, Passion, Jewels by Vincent Meylan (£30/€40, Electa) will be available in June.

Magnificent Jewels and Noble Jewels will be on view in Geneva from 9–11 May.  Auction: 12 May. Enquiries: +41 22 908 4849