Game Of Stones
Famous women, precious gems, and the Eter Eternal City – the Bulgari story is full of colour.
“Look out there,” says Giampaolo Della Croce. “Look at the rounded bridges of the Tiber, the dome of St Peter’s. Look at all the curved cheeks of the putti in the churches. It’s sensual, it’s three-dimensional, it’s feminine.” These elements, for Bulgari’s director of high jewellery, define the uniquely Roman quality of the brand’s colourful stones and diamond serpent bracelets.
Della Croce (whose favourite gem is the spinel, for its warm, clear red) is under the spell of the jewels. “The fascination for stones lies in our souls,” he says. “Who can fail to be beguiled by the sparkle, the rarity, the hardness?” He spends his life tempting patrician Romans, sheikhas behind high palace walls, and Silicon Valley hotshots with his glittering hoards of vivid jewels.
Because Bulgari has made its mark with colour, using yellow and pink gold, rather than platinum, combining the hot orange of a citrine and the purple of an amethyst, sea-green tourmalines and poppy-red garnets. It has created necklaces that, in the words of Amanda Triossi, the jewellery historian and curator of the Bulgari Heritage Collection, are “elegant and strong with a certain solemnity”. There’s a papal grandeur to some pieces, and Bulgari makes rich use of the past, copying the base of an Ionic column for a silver clock, or setting ancient coins into necklaces. It is Della Croce’s job to scatter Bulgari’s stones across the necks of the world’s most envied women; and it is Triossi’s to gather the collection back together for the archive. Another Roman (she hankers after brilliant blue benitoite), she is a hunter whose territory is the great private jewel boxes of the world. When Elizabeth Taylor died, Triossi bought back the emerald and diamond necklace, ring, and brooch that Richard Burton had given the star. These will find their way into the V&A’s ‘The Glamour of Italian Fashion 1945-2014’ exhibition. For, as Triossi says, it was American film stars of the 1950s and 1960s who created Italian style and allow allowed Bulgari to boom, along with Pucci, Valentino, and the Sorel Sorelle Fontana. Hollywood came to film at Cinecittà, and went shop shopping on the Spanish Steps. “I introduced Liz to beer; she introduced in me to Bulgari,” said Burton, and I think we can all agree which was the more worthwhile acquaintance.
Triossi and I sit at a table scattered with millions of pounds’ worth of sapphire earrings, lapis brooches, diamond watches, and silverware dating from the firm’s beginnings. The change in design from the formality of the Fifties to the freedom f of the Seventies is startling. “Fashion is a backdrop for jewellery,” jew explains Triossi. “When the line of a dress changes, that dictates a change in jewellery. So in the 1970s, with a loose neckline, neckl our necklaces became long pendants. With the 1980s and
the power suit, the look changes and you get tight collars of diamonds and enamels.” Stars who famously wore Bulgari jewels ranged from Sophia Loren to Marilyn Monroe, Princess Soraya to Nicole Kidman. Diana Vreeland, BAZAAR’s legendary fashion editor, had an enamelled gold serpent with sapphire eyes that she wore coiled around her waist or her throat, depending on her mood. “Don’t forget the serpent,” she said. “The serpent should be on every finger. We cannot see enough of them.”
Triossi may be an expert on the history of the firm, but Nicola Bulgari, descendant of the Greek silversmith Sotirios Voulgaris who started the family business in 1884, has lived it. His father Giorgio went to Paris in 1908 and came back with the ambition to turn the silver boutique into a great jewellery house. Nicola, now Bulgari’s vicechairman, worked behind the shop counter in the 1960s and remembers Taylor’s visits. “She was quite a character. I was too
“The fascination for stones lies in our souls.” – Giampaolo Della Croce
young to be involved but I saw the excitement. Rome was much more glamorous then. But the world changes, and money changes, and different people wear our jewellery in different ways.”
Nicola was part of the reinvention of Bulgari in the 1970s, when it started making jewels that, as he says, could be worn “every hour of the day. You could wear them with jeans. It was jewellery for an affluent audience, but one that wanted less formality”. On the back of this, Bulgari expanded fast; the family sold to LVMH in 2011, in a €4.3 billion (RM18.8 billion) deal that gives them a 3.5 percent stake in the conglomerate. But Nicola (who favours the sapphire, for its infinite variety of colours) and his brother Paolo still embody the firm.
When I meet him, Nicola is sitting at a table gleaming with gold carafes and silver trays. Like Sotirios, he is passionate about silver. It was he who had the idea of using ancient money in modern jewels. We lean over the table, playing with his collection of coins. “Look at this one,” he cries. “It’s like a painting. So beautiful!” There’s a decadrachm from Agrigento, one of only nine in the world. Another coin features a pouchy, debauched Nero: “A corrupt face, to say the least,” says Nicola, “but an interesting one.” His passion is palpable. While Nicola adores the silver, Paolo, the company’s chairman, is the expert on stones. In the fine-jewellery workshop outside Rome, one artisan speaks in awed tones of presenting each heartbreakingly beautiful piece to his boss. “He shuts his eyes,” he whispers. “He doesn’t look at the jewel; he feels it, he listens to it. It’s years of experience, but really it’s in his DNA.” So perfect is each piece that the underside of a necklace is as painstakingly crafted as the front, and every ring is tested to make sure it won’t ladder a nylon stocking. For, as Nicola says: “We sell happiness here. This business connects with success and happiness. It gives a lot of pleasure and a lot of smiles.” ‘The Glamour of Italian Fashion 19452014’ is at the V&A in London until July 27. www.vam.ac.uk
Sophia Loren wearing Bulgari jewellery
A gold and enamel ring from 1965
An emerald and diamond necklace given by Richard Burton as a wedding gift to Elizabeth Taylor in 1964
Elizabeth Taylor wearing Bulgari jewels in 1966
The firm’s storefront on Via Condotti, Rome, in the 1920s
An emerald and diamond brooch from 1969
Diana Vreeland wearing her Bulgari Serpenti necklace in 1980