Bulgari’s Luxe Years

August 1, 2013  |  Phyllis Schiller

Diamond and platinum bracelet, circa 1955,
from the Bulgari Heritage Collection.

Photograph © Antonio Barrella Studio Orizzonte.

The first American museum showing of Bulgari jewelry, “The
Art of Bulgari: La Dolce Vita & Beyond, 1950-1990,” offers a
decade-by-decade look at the design elements that helped make the company’s
brand synonymous with Italian high-style jewelry. The exhibition opens
September 21 and runs through February 17, 2014, at the de Young Museum, part
of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Martin Chapman, curator in charge of
European Decorative Arts and Sculpture, worked closely with Bulgari curator
Amanda Triossi in the selection of the 145 pieces on display, most of which
were culled from the Bulgari Heritage Collection.
   Although modern-day Bulgari is part of the French luxury
group LVMH, its roots go back to Greece, where founder Sotirio Bulgari was a
silversmith in Epirus, a region in northwest Greece. He eventually set up shop
in Rome in 1881, later working with sons Giorgio and Constantino. By 1910, the
family firm was creating jewelry with precious stones, following the fashion
dictates of the time, which looked to Paris for design leadership. By the late
1950s, however, Bulgari began establishing its own look and “special”
character, says Chapman, “that separates it from other jewelry houses.”
   Particularly from the 1960s onward, he notes, the boldness
of their jewelry, their use of rounded forms and cabochon gemstones in new and
unusual combinations — pairing sapphires with turquoise or emeralds with
amethyst rather than white diamonds — helped fuel their design growth as
documented in the 40 years the exhibition spans. 

Decades on Display
Explains Chapman, “the exhibition is divided into four
decades — the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.” There are multimedia aspects and
short videos that will help the visitor gain a better understanding of the
craftsmanship and design elements of the pieces. One video will show how one of
the more modern pieces displayed was actually put together. An accompanying
movie series features films in which Bulgari jewelry was worn, including, of
course, “La Dolce Vita.”
   Each of the displays showcases the design milestones
achieved within the ten years. Asked to summarize some of the star attractions,
Chapman cites “the tremblant brooches from the late-1950s, floral sprays made
largely of colored and white diamonds and emeralds. They are some of the most
charming pieces. The flower heads are on springs so they nod and there is a
connection back to eighteenth-century jewelry.”
   The 1960s highlights are as diverse as the “Seven Wonders”
emerald necklace and a 1968 shield-shaped table clock, illustrating the
“combination of color, the sense of volume, the richness that is very Bulgari.
I think in the 1960s, they start to really anchor their own designs in their
Roman roots by bringing ancient coins into the jewelry, by having Italian
Renaissance–influenced designs, pendants with very, very compact sets of
cabochon jewels in unusual color combinations.” From the 1960s onward, gold
becomes “very dominant as seen in the snake bracelets, the flexible Tubogas
   In the 1970s, the heavy, chunky, gold jewelry is a Bulgari
staple that becomes, says Chapman, “a standard in jewelry all over the world.”
The decade also includes designs of everyday items with a “touch of whimsy or
the influence of pop art.” On the glamourous side, there were the “Melone”
evening bags, works of art suspended on a silk tassel, “that were photographed
on almost every celebrity in that decade.”
   The modular gold “Parentesi” line suited the 1980s fashions.
Strongly structured, says Chapman, “they have an architectural nature, the
necklaces in particular complementing the ‘Dynasty’ style.”
   Andy Warhol
famously compared a Bulgari showroom to a “contemporary art museum,” notes
Chapman, “showing how far ahead Bulgari was in terms of jewelry design and how
they captured the spirit of the decade.” 

Cause Célèbre
The strong association of Bulgari jewelry with the doyennes
and divas of society and cinema was a very deliberate marketing strategy, says
Chapman, and is acknowledged in the exhibit. “You have someone like Princess
Grace wearing a chunky Bulgari chain necklace set with a coin, as well as
prominent Americans like Claire Boothe Luce and Brooke Astor seen and
photographed in Bulgari jewels.” Cinema stars like Italy’s own Anna Magnani,
Gina Lollobrigida and Sophia Loren shopped Bulgari, adding their movie-star
   But perhaps the biggest aficionado was Elizabeth Taylor and
the exhibit includes a separate section devoted to her long association with
the Italian jeweler. “Bulgari bought back several of the major pieces from the
Taylor sales,” says Chapman, “and they are some of the most spectacular pieces
of jewelry in the exhibition.”

Lasting Appeal
The siren call of the celebrity connection has helped
vintage Bulgari pieces not only hold their appeal but their value. At Sotheby’s
May 2013 Magnificent and Noble Jewels auction in Geneva, a collection of jewels
owned by Gina Lollobrigida included several 1950s and 1960s Bulgari designs
that all sold close to or over their high estimates. But it was the 2011 sale
of Elizabeth Taylor’s jewels, says Gus Davis, partner, Camilla Dietz Bergeron,
Ltd., New York City, that helped create a real resurgence of interest. “I think
the jewelry has always been on people’s minds, but since the auction, there’s
been a growing interest in the jewelry, especially the vintage Bulgari pieces.
   “We have requests for the classic Tubogas jewelry and long
chains. People like the more esoteric pieces like the ancient coin jewelry,
anything with a serpent theme, especially bracelets and watches, hanging
earrings.” It also, says Davis, appeals to a broad age group. One reason he
cites is that despite a reputation as “movie-star jewelry,” the pieces have a
casual feel that can be dressed up or down. “To me, Bulgari is the epitome of
how Italian women dress. It’s really hot right now.”
   Nancy Revy, chief executive officer (CEO) of Beladora.com,
also acknowledges the demand for those “wonderful vintage pieces or the newer
pieces that are big with color. To me, Bulgari is synonymous with color,
colored gemstones and great Italian goldwork…the classic 1960s and ’70s pieces
that were worn by Gina Lollobrigida, Sophia Loren and Elizabeth Taylor. There
is a new desire for these pieces from the younger thirty-somethings who are
interested in that luxe look. I have noticed an upswing of desire in the past
few years for the older, iconic Bulgari coin jewelry. There’s a new
appreciation of how fabulous it was and with the museum show coming out, it
seems to be out there in the zeitgeist.”
   And the prices for the vintage pieces definitely have gone
up, Davis says. “I think the market favors it right now. The prices are very
strong. There’s not a lot of it around; it’s gotten scarcer to find.” Revy
agrees that “It’s hard to get those big, vintage pieces.”
   “Bulgari produced some really remarkable jewelry during the
period from 1950 through 1990,” sums up Chapman, “and it’s interesting not only
from the point of view of design and craftsmanship but also the aspect of
social history and the association with movie stars and celebrities.”


Bulgari’s Luxe Years

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