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Fashion History: Bulgari Jewellery

Ah, Bulgari! Many words spring to mind to describe the inimitable Italian jeweller, subtle not being among the vernacular. Decadent, luxurious, divine and glamorous; since its founding in the 1880’s Bulgari has come to epitomise all things Dolce Vita. Surprising then that the eponymous house, a symbol of Italian caché and glorious gold aplomb can trace its heritage back to a silversmith from Greece. Sotirios Voulgaris emigrated to Rome in 1880 and modifying his name to a more user-friendly phonetic Bulgari, opened his first store in Rome in 1884; first on Via Sistina before moving to the current flagship store on Via dei Condotti. From relatively humble roots Bulgari, officially spelled BVLGARI by the company, as per the traditional Roman alphabet, swiftly established itself as one of the world’s finest purveyors of jewels-- adding watches, accessories, fragrances and more recently hotels to its armoury thus cementing its status as a true power player within the luxury goods market. For over 130 years, Bulgari has stood for excellence, creativity and untouchable craftsmanship.

So just what makes Bulgari so timelessly alluring? Mingling Greek, Roman and Italian Renaissance influences, so much of its jewellery is imbued with that intangible hallmark of splendour, opulence and more often than not a kaleidoscope of colour shouting, look at me! For this reason, the marque can divide opinion; there is nothing discreet or modest about it, but proud, bold and regal. Loyal fans continue to flock to Bulgari, peerless for unapologetic glamour. During the zeitgeist of la Dolce Vita Bulgari made pioneering strides experimenting with volume, shape and colour, using a spectrum of both precious and semi-precious stones and trademark cabochon cuts for many of its pieces. Said to be inspired by Rome’s intense summer hues and domed skyline, the polished, rounded cut gems, including lesser-celebrated but no less eye-catching tourmaline, amethyst and turquoise, have come to represent quintessential Bulgari.

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Xupes pre-loved 18k yellow gold Allegra ring and Cabochon Sapphire rings are fine examples of Bulgari’s devotion to eye-popping colour and unconventional, sinuous shapes. 

bulgari rings

Big gems attract big personalities and in the 1960’s the house established itself as the jeweller of choice for many of Hollywood’s most dazzling stars including Audrey Hepburn, Sofia Loren and Princess Grace of Monaco. But of course, no serious discussion of Bulgari could pass without mention of its most famous patron, the untouchable violet-eyed one herself, Elizabeth Taylor.  Dame Taylor’s love affair with jewels is the stuff of legend, but her particular devotion to Bulgari warrants its own anthology. Bulgari was not merely a preferred jeweller, but crucially played a pivotal role in one of the most famous love affairs of all time, that between Taylor and her paramour Richard Burton.

During the filming of Cleopatra in 1962 the pair, both married at the time, used the flagship store in Rome (then its only shop), as a secret rendezvous to escape prying lens of the paparazzi. “Undeniably, one of the biggest advantages to working on Cleopatra in Rome was Bulgari’s nice little shop," mused Taylor of the jeweller. Quite. As Burton aptly quipped, “I introduced her to beer and she introduced me to Bulgari.” Christie’s 2011 auction of Taylor’s personal jewel collection fetched a record-breaking US$115m, helped in no small part by a number of jaw-dropping Bulgari gems including the "It's Tuesday, I love you" emerald suite and gravity-defying Bulgari 65-carat sugar loaf cut sapphire and diamond necklace.

Theirs was a symbiotic relationship of mutual admiration. In publicity stills from the set of Cleopatra, Taylor is posing wearing the now famous Serpenti bracelet, helping catapult the design into iconic status. In a marketing masterstroke, Bulgari’s exotic interpretation of the reptile became a brand calling card, helping launch its watchmaking business, Bulgari Haute Horlogerie S.A. in 1980. Since then the seductive lines of the Serpenti, an intoxicating symbol of wisdom and vitality has become an instantly recognisable hallmark of Bulgari. This is also when the Tubogas method of bracelet formation took off, created with long bands of gold or steel wrapped horizontally around a long, flexible steel tube without any soldering. The coiled bands lend spring, flexibility and animation to the ‘body’ of the serpent, bringing it to life.

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Early watch movements were supplied by the likes of Jaeger-LeCoultre, Vacheron Constantin and Movado, leaving Bulgari to concentrate where it excels-- unparalleled luxury and innovative design.  Iconic watch models ensued including the Bulgari Bulgari and Bulgari Roma, a nod to the company’s Greco-Roman roots, with its classic circular emblem configured to mimic an ancient Roman coin. Heading into the 21st century Bulgari got serious about watchmaking and by 2004 produced their first grand complication watch entirely manufactured in-house featuring a tourbillon movement. Record-breaking success came in 2014 with the release of the Bulgari Octo Finissimo Tourbullion. At 1.95mm it represented the world’s thinnest tourbillon.

Whilst Bulgari could hardly be guilty of understatement, today the Bulgari-Bulgari line of jewellery and accessories, including Xupes’ pre-owned 18k white gold B.zero ring and their pre-loved 18k white gold and diamond bracelet, represent a more pared-back, contemporary and accessible collection.

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bulgari ring and bracelet

Still, show-stopping gems rest at the heart of Bulgari, which continues to thrill and fascinate as a firm fixture on the red carpet. Keira Knightley plumped for a vintage Bulgari ‘Tutti-Frutti’ bib necklace at the 2006 Oscars that risked eclipsing her very own star-power, whilst at the same ceremony, Jennifer Aniston sported over 137 carats of diamonds in a vintage Bulgari necklace that has also decorated the lauded necks of Ashley Judd and Jessica Chastain. Indeed, rarely does an awards season pass without eye-popping Bulgari creations making a cameo or two. Fan or not, there is no denying the mesmerising magic that is Bulgari.