Icons of Design – Bulgari

By Vivienne Becker
Vivienne Becker is a jewellery historian and a contributing editor of The Financial Times' How to Spend it.

B ulgari, the quintessential Roman jeweler, was founded by a Greek silversmith Sotirio Boulgaris (later Italianised to Bulgari). Born in Epirus in 1857 to a family with a long tradition of silvermithing, Sotirio arrived in Rome in 1881, via Corfu and Naples. In 1884 he opened a shop in the via Sistina, followed by a second shop at 28 via Condotti the following year, selling “artistic” silverwork, antiques, curiosities and jewelry.

In 1905 Bulgari began to focus seriously on jewelry, with the opening of the shop at 10 via Condotti, close to the Spanish Steps — the heritage boutique that remains the brand’s heart and soul today. In this endeavor Sotirio was joined by his two sons, Costantino (1889–1973), an academic who wrote the standard work on Italian silversmithing, and Giorgio (1890–1966), who worked closely with his father, buying stones and developing Bulgari’s creativity.

Elizabeth Taylor wearing a Bulgari 'Serpentini' watch, during a break on the set of Cleopatra at Cinecitta Studio in Rome, 4 April 1962. Image courtesy of Associated Press

After Sotirio’s death in 1932, his sons took assumed the business and were joined by Giorgio’s three sons: Gianni, who left the company in 1987; Paolo, gemstone supremo; and Nicola, history lover and silver expert. The distinctive Bulgari style emerged in the 1960s, at the height of La Dolce Vita, characterized by powerful, architectural design and voluptuous colored stones, especially cabochons. Bulgari expanded globally, attracting an illustrious clientele of writers, artists and movie stars, notably Sophia Loren and Elizabeth Taylor. The Bulgari style dominated jewelry design in the 1980s: Andy Warhol famously said, Bulgari jewelry “was” the eighties. In 2011, the company was acquired by LVMH.

These best-known of Bulgari jewels, set with ancient and antique coins, make reference to the company’s Greek origins and Roman heritage, an enduring inspiration for Bulgari, as well as to 19th-century Roman archaeological revival jewelry, which incorporated ancient coins — notably by Castellani.

Lily Aldridge in Bulgari Serpentini necklace and tubogas.

The first Monete jewels appeared in the 60s: coins, mostly from 300 BC to 300 AD, with some later European and American additions, were set in the same way as precious gems, in contemporary gold settings, heavy gold chains or springy gas-pipe gold Tubogas. Nicola Bulgari believed Monete jewels gave coins a second life, infusing Bulgari’s powerful, linear style with narrative, figurative form while imbuing a sense of history and the layers of both ancient and modern that are so much part of Roman life and style.


In 1962, Elizabeth Taylor was in Rome filming the Cleopatra (1963). During a break in filming, she posed for a still while wearing – appropriately for her role– a gold-and-diamond coiled serpent Serpenti watch by Bulgari. While Bulgari had made a coiled stylized serpent jewelry watch in the late 40s, it was in the 60s, boosted by Taylor’s portrayal of Cleopatra, that the Serpenti rose to cult-style status. It became far more realistically snake-like, with its superbly articulated scale-like elements in textured gold, studded with gems or vibrantly enameled, with the watch case and dial hidden inside the serpent’s beautifully shaped head.

Lady's Diamond Wristwatch, 'Serpenti', Bulgari. CHF 30,000-40,000 / US$ 30,000-40,000.

The bouncy flexibility of the Serpenti as it spiraled several times around the wrist was engineered by means of a gold spring inside the serpent’s body. Diana Vreeland, who was mad about serpent jewels, owned a bold white-and-pink enamel Serpenti belt which she also wore coiled around her neck. In abstract variations, wide gold Tubogas coils are finished with square or oval dials. The Serpenti, its head, scales and texture, remain an iconic Bulgari theme and motif for watches, jewelry and handbags.

The ingenious modular concept of a contemporary, linear, repeatable motif, the stylised “bracket”, was launched in 1982 and became the jewel of the 80s, and one of the most copied jewellery designs of the 20th century. The idea was to create an accessible, versatile, wearable design, adaptable to all forms of jewellery, from a ring to a necklace, offering endless permutations, and catering to the power-dressing, post-feminist working woman of the 1980s. The distinctive bracket motifs, both linear and curvaceous in typical Bulgari style, faced each other across gold linear elements, connected by panel-shaped components, building patterns that could be accented with diamonds, or enhanced with the addition of haematite, steel, coral, mother-of-pearl, or even set with coins or cabochon stones. The powerful, abstract Parentesi gold jewels, so immediately and universally recognizable, were the perfect complement to the ‘80s capsule wardrobe, offering a new informality in high jewellery, yet taking the busy career woman effortlessly from boardroom to cocktail party. So wildly successful was Parentesi that it spawned a series of adaptations of the concept, including the zig-zag Spiga, and the twin hearts of Doppio Cuore.


Sophia Loren wearing a Bulgari necklace, 20 June 1962 (photo)
Sophia Loren wearing a Bulgari necklace, 20 June 1962. Photograph courtesy of Bridgeman Images.

Colour — exuberant, voluptuous, audacious — defines Bulgari’s style signature. It is color characterized by a very particular choice of gemstones, daringly different often idiosyncratic combinations, and a very Italian sensibility to the spirit and life in a stone: a mix of richness and inner light. The contrast of this emotive sensuality of color with architectural rigor of line and form is the essence of Bulgari’s inimitable style.

Gem set and diamond parure, Bulgari. Estimate CHF 80,000 — 120,000.

By the 1960s, Bulgari jewels exploded with color: tonal blends of paler blue Sri Lankan sapphires, striking combinations of traditional colored gems with citrines, amethysts, tourmalines, and with especially colored sapphires, a massive trend spearheaded by Bulgari. The cut of stones is crucial too, and from the late 50s and 60s, Bulgari began using the cabochon, a departure from the norm, evoking the richness of Renaissance jewels. Paolo Bulgari inherited his father Giorgio’s love and knowledge of gemstones, nurturing an unrivaled eye for the beauty and charisma of these stones; a passion passed on, personally, to today’s Creative Director, Lucia Silvestri, who says, “Most of all, Bulgari stones have to be alive.”

Discover more Bulgari treasures in our upcoming Magnificent Jewels and Noble Jewels sale.

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