SPARKS OF GENIUS Bulgari’s creative director turns her passion for gemstones into exquisite jewellery. By Lydia Slater.
At first glance, Lucia Silvestri’s office reminds me of an old-fashioned confectioner’s. Gobstoppersize amethysts, mouth-watering South Sea pearls, grass-green emeralds, mandarin garnets, and heaps of smooth, pink cabochon sapphires like boiled sweets are laid out on the white table. Bulgari’s creative director has been indulging in her favourite activity: playing with gems. She loves the feel of them and their internal energy. “When I’m feeling nervous, I just do this,” she says, clasping the huge amethyst that dangles from her necklace. “It makes me strong.”
Petite, blonde, and elegant in the intensely feminine way of Italian women, Silvestri has draped herself with costly, brightly coloured jewellery. In one earlobe gleams a diamond stud, in the other an emerald. The same maximalist yet insouciant approach is to be seen in her designs, in which she juxtaposes precious and semiprecious stones for the greatest chromatic exuberance, and even the costliest and most important pieces breathe a sense of playfulness amid the exquisite craftsmanship. “For me, a Bulgari piece has to be contemporary, creative, and feminine,” she says. “And a pleasure to wear, like second skin.” She flicks through her phone to show me a photograph of a young client, who is wearing a miniskirt, a cropped jumper that exposes her stomach, and a magnificent high jewellery diamond necklace from the Giardini Italiani collection. “I love this way to wear Bulgari – very rock!” Silvestri says approvingly.
Rome has been fundamental to the creative DNA of the brand, ever since it was founded in 1884 by Sotirio Bulgari, an itinerant Greek silversmith. And this month, Bulgari’s distinctively Roman aesthetic has come to London, with the redesign by the architect Peter Marino of Bulgari’s New Bond Street store. Step inside, and you could be in the Via Condotti flagship: here are the marble columns, the bronze latticework screen inspired by the Pantheon, and the Bulgari eight-pointed star motif, signifying “Roma Caput Mundi”. It is an appropriate motto for Silvestri herself, who always designs her high and fine jewellery collections in Bulgari’s offices overlooking the Tiber. The gingko motif of the Diva collection was taken from the shape of the mosaics in the Baths of Caracalla, while the now-iconic B.zero1 collection was originally conceived by the Bulgari brothers to echo the structure of the Colosseum.
The latest reimagining of the B.zero1 is actually one of the earliest prototypes, originally rejected for being made from three kinds of gold instead of two. “We went back and realised now is the time to bring out this mistake, because it’s beautiful,” says Silvestri.
It was 35 years ago that Silvestri’s passion for gems brought her to the attention of the Bulgari brothers, the grandsons of the founder. At the time, she was working as a temporary secretary, but found herself irresistibly drawn to the raw materials office. “I immediately started to touch the gems, to play with combinations of colours.” Sensing the potential behind her passion, the Bulgari brothers trained her up as a jewel buyer. Since then, Silvestri has travelled the globe in search of the finest stones, descending into sapphire mines and, on one memorable occasion, driving for five hours into the Sri Lankan jungle to meet a dealer protected by an army of gun-toting bodyguards and a house leopard. She still turned down his rubies, for her instinct is uncompromising.
On her wall, she has a picture of herself holding a fist-size rough sapphire. It took seven years before the owner could bring himself to cut such a stone. When he did, Silvestri unhesitatingly rejected the result. “I said, ‘It’s not right. I want to see the life, the sea, the velvet ... ’” Only when it had been reduced to 125 carats and the size of a gull’s egg did she declare it worthy. Goosebumps visibly prickle on her arms as she recalls her first sight of “the best Sri Lankan sapphire I ever saw in my life.”
After her decades in the business, Silvestri can tell a jewel’s intrinsic quality from instinct alone. It must have been that same well-honed sense that led the Bulgari brothers to snap up this rare gem when she first walked into their offices.
Pink, white, and yellow gold
Bulgari’s creative director, Lucia Silvestri
A rendering of the jewellery area for
the New Bond Street boutique