FOUNDED BY A GREEK IMMIGRANT, BULGARI IS THE MOST ROMAN OF JEWELLERS, INSCRIBING THE ETERNAL CITY INTO ITS DESIGNS. A LANDMARK EXHIBITION OF ITS HERITAGE PIECES IS NOW ON ITS WAY TO MELBOURNE.
With a city so ancient and grand, Romans have no need for exaggeration. So when the Rome-based Bulgari says it is bringing to Melbourne this month “probably what is one of our most memorable selection of jewels ... the very best and most important of our collection”, you had better believe it. Five years in development, the free Bulgari exhibition Italian Jewels: Bulgari Style, opens at the National Gallery of Victoria on September 30. Containing 100 high jewellery pieces handmade in Rome between the 1950s and 1970s, it is the most significant collection ever brought to Australia in the 132-year-old company’s history.
Part of the tightly edited selection of multi-milliondollar jewels are one-of-a-kind pieces formerly owned by Grace Kelly, Anita Ekberg and Elizabeth Taylor, including the opulent, 37-cm long emerald, diamond and platinum necklace given to Taylor by Richard Burton in 1964 as a wedding gift. (“The only word Liz knows in Italian is ‘Bulgari’,” Burton once jibed.)
It’s not just four decades of Bulgari style and craftsmanship being exhibited at NGV, but more than 2000 years of Roman history, thanks to the way the jeweller has infused the city’s culture and landmarks into its design and engineering.
It’s a scorching summer’s day in Rome when we meet Bulgari’s brand and heritage curator, Lucia Boscaini, in the Domus, a small private gallery dedicated to the company’s Heritage Collection above the Via Condotti flagship store. She is dressed elegantly in a white silk blouse and floral pants, accessorised with Bulgari yellow gold rings, bracelets and a 1980s-era Bulgari Tubogas choker. “I feel very comfortable wearing this today,” she says. “That’s the difference between ... I don’t want to say masterpiece because I don’t want to oversell anything, but it’s something that’s really beautiful.”
Boscaini has spent the morning at a nearby museum perusing a rare collection of Lombard jewels dating back to the 3rd century AD. “Antique jewellery especially is really interesting to understand for its social aspect,” she says. “Of course, jewellery is very much about craftsmanship and the gemstone. But there is also a cultural and social aspect that is so important. In some countries – Italy especially – jewellery is linked to the personal history of each family and they tend to be transmitted from one generation to another. It means that there is far more beyond the inner values of stones, gold and craftsmanship. It’s something emotional.”
Part of Boscaini’s remit is to scour the world looking for Bulgari pieces owned by private collectors and to purchase them on behalf of the company to increase and enrich its Heritage Collection. “Bulgari doesn’t sell any of its heritage jewels, we only buy them,” she says. “For us it’s a strict policy. We take care of them from a strategic point of view so we can show to the world the evolution of the brand and how our roots are actually sustaining creativity, now and in the future.”
In December 2011 Boscaini was Bulgari’s bidder at the Christie’s auction of Elizabeth Taylor’s jewellery collection, a smorgasbord of precious stone pieces that gave credence to the notion that, while diamonds are a girl’s best friend, they’re also her lover and soulmate. Bulgari paid 30 million for seven pieces, of which two, Burton’s wedding necklace and matching “Tremblant” brooch, are en route to Australia for the exhibition.
Taylor’s love of Bulgari jewels is almost as famous as her affair with Burton, dubbed Le Scandale. The two came together like a supernova in Rome on the set of Cleopatra. Production of the now notorious epic had been moved from England to Italy because, says former Fox studios head, Peter Levathes, “we thought Elizabeth Taylor would show up more”. The actress certainly showed up to Bulgari’s Via Condotti store. The chaotic scenes of paparazzi and onlookers jostling to catch a glimpse of Taylor outside Bulgari are some of the more iconic images of la dolce vita. The diva’s Tremblant Bulgari brooch, a floral composition of emeralds, diamonds and platinum, was designed to catch the light – presumably from the flash of photographers – and was the genesis of Burton’s necklace design, intended to be paired with it. “Undeniably, one of the biggest advantages to working on Cleopatra in Rome was Bulgari’s nice little shop,” wrote Taylor in her memoirs. “I used to visit Gianni Bulgari in the afternoons and we’d sit in what he called the ‘money room’ and swap stories.”
“You can’t imagine in terms of investment how important this [auction] was,” Boscaini admits. “It was quite a complicated situation. It was very stressful, actually. I was working on my PC with an Excel sheet, my colleague was talking with the auction house, and the third [colleague] was the motivating one, saying ‘OK, OK ... be strong’”. Bidding from secret rooms behind the mirrors at Christie’s, Boscaini revised on the run the budget and maximum Bulgari would pay for each lot. “The lot sequence is fixed, so first you have to bid and if you miss out you say, “OK, well, it’s lost forever.” Bulgari missed out on three lots to private bidders, some of whom remain anonymous. “We do try to get in contact with them,” Boscaini says. “Even if we