Icons of Jewelry Design – Bvlgari

By Catherine Kim
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History of Bvlgari

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

Three of Bvlgari's most famous designs:

Lily Aldridge in Bulgari Serpentini necklace and tubogas.

1. Bvlgari Monete or Bvlgari Coin

Bulgari Monete Coin and Diamond Necklace

Bvlgari Monete pieces were first created in the 1960s with coins from mostly 300 BC to 300 AD. Bvlgari jewelry set with ancient and antique coins are a nod to the company's Greek origins and Roman heritage. Rome in the 1960s was the center of Hollywood glamour. Nicola Bulgari believed Monete jewels gave coins a second life and created a collection of statement Bvlgari necklaces with long chains. Today Bvlgari Monete (Bvlgari coin) jewelry includes rings, necklaces, earrings and bracelets. Sotheby's sold a Bvlgari Monete necklace with carnelian and diamonds for over $165,000 in 2023. The bezel-set antique coin depicting a male in profile, the reverse depicting a figure, the bezel inscribed 'ROMA TITUS AUG. A.D. 79-81' as a reference to Titus Vespasianus Augustus. The Bvlgari necklace was also encircled with carved carnelian and brilliant-cut diamonds.

2. Bvlgari Serpenti

Bulgari Watch

The first Bulgari Serpenti piece was designed in 1948: a bracelet-watch in gold with a square head for the dial and a body that wraps around the wrist. The flexible bracelet-watch was done in a Tubogas technique that featured consistent coils of gold. The design eventually evolved in the 1950s to resemble more of a serpent, featuring a realistic looking snake head that is set with precious stones such as rubies, sapphires or emeralds for the eyes. The Bulgari Serpenti watch dial was located discreetly in the mouth so that it is a “secret watch”, as dubbed by the industry. The Bvlgari Serpenti became popular in the 1960s after Elizabeth Taylor after she was photogaphed wearing a Bulgari Serpenti watch. She was spotted wearing the Bvlgari Serpenti watch while in Rome filming Cleopatra (1963).

Bvlgari Serpenti Watch

Diana Vreeland, who was mad about serpent jewels, owned a bold white-and-pink enamel Bvlgari 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 Bvlgari Serpenti remains an iconic Bulgari theme and motif for watches, jewelry and handbags.

3. Bvlgari Bold Color and Cabochons

Another signature style for Bvlgari jewelry is exuberant, voluptuous, audacious color. Bvlgari color is characterized by the choice of gemstones, daringly idiosyncratic combinations and Italian sensibility. Bvlgari necklace with stones in bold colors is the essence of Bulgari’s inimitable style.

Bulgari Necklace

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

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