by Inga Walton
(Richard Burton on Elizabeth Taylor).1
Widely recognised as the quintessential Italian jewellery and luxury accessories company, Bulgari actually has its origins in Greece with the silversmith Constantinos Boulgaris from the village of Kallarrytes.
Boulgaris was one of the generations of skilled metalworkers whose craft had been handed down from father to son since Byzantine times. His son Georgis (1823-89) used to travel as far as Albania and Epirus to sell his wares, finally settling in the village of Paramythia where he met his wife and opened a small shop. It was here that Sotirios Boulgaris (1858-1932), the only one of the couple’s eleven children to survive, began his career, and where his first store can still be seen. Regional conflicts between the Russians and Turks in the Balkans, and an insurrection of Christians against the Ottomans in the Paramythia area, contributed to the subsequent collapse of the silver trade. This prompted the family to leave continental Greece towards the end of 1877, with Sotirios and Georgis heading to Corfù. By the spring of 1878 they had opened a small workshop in the San Rocco quarter.
The arrival of an old acquaintance, the Macedonian silversmith Demetrios Kremos, who was en route to Italy, prompted Sotirios to accompany him. In 1880 they opened a small shop in Naples, but were forced to close after they were burgled. As a result of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), Italian troops captured Rome, resulting in the capital being moved from Florence where it had been since 1865. To Rome they ventured, but disagreements saw the two men part ways not long after their arrival. Undeterred, Sotirios established his own store in the spring of 1884 at Via Sistina. The street was located in a district known as the Tridente, encompassing three streets, Via del Corso, Via del Babuino and Via Frattina, popular with the locals, and wealthy foreigners, for their walks. In 1894, he was able to open another store on Via dei Condotti with a shop-front inscribed: “S. Bulgari- Argenteria Artistica, Antiquités, Curiosités, Bijoux”. By this date, Sotirios had become Sotirio, and he had Italianised his surname. He produced refined silver ornaments: buckles, oval medallions and girdles modelled in the Neo-Hellenic style, gold and silver jewels, and also traded in antiques and fashionable bric-à-brac.
Sotirio’s firstborn, Constantino G. Bulgari (1889-1973), and his brother Giorgio L. Bulgari (1890-1966), gradually took over the running of the business. Constantino was deeply interested in fine antique silver and decorative arts and chose to focus on that aspect, which also served as a suitable backdrop to the firm’s increased focus on fine jewels and gems.2 Giorgio concerned himself with the day-to-day running of the business: craftsmanship, design, and manufacture. In 1933 the Via dei Condotti premises was enlarged and redesigned to an imposing new standard, its façades and interiors conveying the preeminent position the Bulgari’s business now occupied. The Bulgari family not only participated in the mercantile and cultural life of the city, their wider civic contribution has also been recognised. Constantino and his wife Laura Gulienetti (1892-1966) sheltered and assisted Jews after the German occupation of Rome in September, 1943. For their wartime actions they were later recognised as Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem, 31 December, 2003. Constantino and Giorgio were also active in covertly assisting Allied troops during World War II, for which they were recognised by Field-Marshal Harold Alexander, 1st Earl Alexander of Tunis, and the American Commander of the Mediterranean Theatre, General Joseph T. McNarney.3
Members of the third generation of the Bulgari family continue to devote themselves to the business and its global expansion. Constantino’s daughter Marina would establish her own jewellery company under the name ‘Marina B’, whose creative director is now her nephew Giorgio (the grandson of his namesake). Italian Jewels: Bvlgari Style at the National Gallery of Victoria (until 29 January, 2017) brings together over eighty examples of superb craftsmanship, demonstrating the stylistic evolution of the house. These include a number of signature designs such as the tremblant brooch, so-called because of the small springs of coiled wire that allow the parts to move with the wearer; the ‘Serpenti’ snake-shaped bracelet-watch; the ‘Monete’ (coins), ancient Greek and Roman coins mounted in gold; the ‘Melone’ evening bag; the ‘Tubogas’, a flexible tubular band of precious metal that is manufactured without soldering, used for bracelets and chokers; the revival of the sautoir necklace in the 1970s; and the modular Parentesi line introduced in the 1980s.
Drawn principally from the Bulgari Heritage Collection, the exhibition also includes pieces borrowed from the prominent Rome-based vintage and antique jewellery dealer Carlo Eleuteri, whose family are also of Greek extraction. On loan for the first time from the National Collection of Qatar is a Tiara (c.1930) of nineteenth-century inspiration. Nonetheless, it shows how the interplay of coloured gemstones, typical of the jewellery designs of the 1920s, was displaced in favour of the monochromatic use of a platinum and diamonds arranged in geometric shapes that would characterise the coming decade. The Academy Award-nominated actress and poker player Jennifer Tilly has loaned several pieces from her personal collection, including an impressive turquoise and diamond parure (c.1969-72). Tilly acquired the group, comprised of a collar, ring, brooch and bangle set in gold, in 1993. “When I was having the necklace sized and fitted, the Bulgari archives told me it was a special commission jewel. They shared the details and original drawing. I think it is nice to have a major piece, but I have never worn it. You need the right neckline like a strapless dress. You can’t wear it with just anything. One day I will wear it. The other pieces in the set, I have worn a million times”.4
It is usual for prestige jewellers such as Garrard (est. 1735), Mauboussin (est. 1827), Cartier (est. 1847), Tiffany & Co. (est. 1853), Boucheron (est. 1858), and Van Cleef & Arpels (est. 1896), to have an in-house archive. This might be comprised of designs, prototypes, customer orders and commissions, and works of significance that have been retained or reacquired over the years. Bulgari elevates that practice to a different level with its large collection of around 750 pieces, including jewels, watches, accessories, vintage photographs and design concepts that are toured worldwide and loaned out for promotional purposes. “The supreme skill and care of hand drawings make them works of art in themselves, thus allowing [us] to enhance the artisanal mastery behind each Heritage piece, from the very first sketching to the in-workshop crafting. The Maison started to build its historical archive of jewels, precious objects and sketches in the 1990s”, says Lucia Boscaini, curator for Bulgari Brand Heritage. “[The] Heritage Collection is the result of devoted research and archival work … an inestimable asset for us as it encapsulates the essence of Bulgari. Based in Rome, the Brand Heritage Department I lead is the official source of information about Bulgari’s history, the iconic motifs and Brand hallmarks, the endorsement of artists and celebrities from the past, and anecdotes about the provenance of the Heritage pieces”.
The company has a commitment to preserving important works from its past, and has a specific annual budget allocated for such ‘buy-back’ activities. “To this aim, we attentively scout the jewellery auctions worldwide to find out ‘must have’ pieces that epitomise the hallmarks of the Bulgari style or, on the other hand, allow us to discover less[er] known facets of the Bulgari creativity”, Boscaini explains. “As for the criteria, there is a precise purchasing strategy aiming to fill the chronological and stylistic gaps within the Heritage Collection with a particular focus on the decades 1930s-1970s. Even when the provenance is very prestigious, as was the case with the [Elizabeth] Taylor pieces, the criteria is always a balance between the provenance and the craftsmanship [with] fine stones mounted on the jewel”.
Indeed, one of the best known, and most frequently seen, collections of Bulgari jewellery was that belonging to the actress and philanthropist Dame Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011). Throughout her life, Taylor was the recipient of numerous extravagant gifts of jewellery, both from her various husbands, and her prominent friends, such as the ‘King of Pop’ Michael Jackson (1958-2009) and publisher Malcolm Forbes (1919-90). Her vast array of jewels, including such historically important pieces as the ‘La Peregrina’ pearl (c.1579), the Nur Jahan diamond pendant (c.1627-28), the Prince of Wales diamond brooch (c.1935), a Fabergé egg pendant (c.1905), the Krupp diamond (33.19 carats), and the Taylor-Burton diamond (69.42 carats) was internationally renowned. Taylor also purchased and commissioned various pieces of jewellery for herself over the course of her long and distinguished career. In collaboration with the model Kathy Ireland and Mirabelle Luxury Concepts, she established the company House of Taylor Jewelry in 2005 to develop her own line of fine jewellery.
Taylor loaned sixteen of her Bulgari pieces to the first retrospective exhibition, Bvlgari: Between Eternity and History: From 1884 to 2009, 125 Years of Italian Jewels (2009) at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni in Rome. After her death, the bulk of Taylor’s jewellery and fashion collection was auctioned at Christies in 2011 to benefit the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation. Bulgari Heritage reacquired a good proportion of the major pieces Taylor had owned. “Elizabeth once told me that she felt she was the custodian of her jewels, watching over them and loving them. Jewels were a source of pure happiness for her and she loved wearing them, because she could then share with others their magic powers of joy and excitement”, Paolo Bulgari, a grandson of Sotirio, revealed at the time of the sale. “For a jeweller like myself, there is nothing more gratifying than having the sensation of adding to the happiness of a client. That is why I feel so grateful to Elizabeth, because in choosing and wearing Bulgari jewels she gave them the inestimable added value of rare beauty and prestige. To me, her star will shine forever in the history of movies, and in the history of Bulgari as well”.5
As Taylor remarked, “Undeniably, one of the biggest advantages to working on Cleopatra [Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1963] in Rome was Bulgari’s nice little shop. I used to visit Gianni Bulgari in the afternoons and we’d sit in what he called the ‘money room’ and swap stories. He had a whole section of antique silver and gold samovars and huge tea sets and other bits for fine homes. And the jewellery? The exclusive crème de la crème pieces were tucked away in a small room”.6 While still married to fourth husband, singer Eddie Fisher (1928-2010), Taylor began a relationship with her co-star, the volatile Welsh actor Richard Burton, CBE (1925-84) who was playing Mark Antony in the film. As their immensely public and torrid romance both scandalised and titillated the world, Burton commented, “I introduced beer to Liz, and she introduced me to Bulgari”.7
The sprawling Bulgari headquarters at Via dei Condotti seemed to be at the epicentre of the marital drama playing out during the production. Fisher, who “well knew the therapeutic effect of jewellery on his wife, and was accustomed to buying her jewellery from Bulgari” presented her with a suite of white and yellow diamond jewels from the firm for her birthday in February, 1962.8 The gesture had little impact on the outcome of their marriage, however, and came with a financial sting for Taylor. “Richard and I had sworn not to see each other – not because of the press, but because of Sybil [Williams, 1929-2013], his wife. My marriage to Eddie Fisher was already over. On this ‘occasion’ I had just turned thirty, and it was the most miserable day of my life”, she recalled. “The earrings, the ring and the brooch came as a total surprise from Eddie on my birthday. The whole set. I thanked him, but really I was just looking for some sign of something, anything, from Richard … As for Eddie, in a couple of months he was out of the house, and a couple of months after that I received the bill for the jewellery. Did I end up paying the bill? – mmmm, probably”.9
The Tremblant Flower Brooch (1959) from this set was bought from the Christie’s sale by Jennifer Tilly. “I had a wish list of items for the Elizabeth Taylor auction in 2011. Most slipped away … The astronomical prices of everything was making me think I wasn’t going to get anything”, Tilly admitted. “I was bidding against a guy in the room, which I thought was a good sign because most of the really big ticket items were going to people bidding over the phone. He got really annoyed at me when the price kept going up. He actually pointed at me and asked, ‘Is she going to keep bidding?’ That’s when I put on my poker face and said ‘Maybe, maybe not.’ He finally stopped bidding and I got it. I have been on a meagre jewellery diet ever since! But I am thrilled I got such an iconic piece”.10 Tilly persevered to win the bid at over USD$1.14 million. “I love the story behind the brooch, which maybe isn’t romantic to some people but to me it was amazing”, she enthused. “Eddie Fisher gave it to Elizabeth at a dinner party in Rome where she was filming Cleopatra – and falling in love with her leading man Richard Burton. Two weeks after her birthday she left Fisher for Burton. Eddie hadn’t paid for the brooch yet so he sent the bill to Elizabeth – who paid it! Elizabeth was notorious for getting people to buy her jewellery so I thought she must have wanted that brooch awfully badly to pay for it.” 11
The first gift Burton bought for Taylor was a Ring (1961) from Bulgari featuring a 7.4 carat octagonal step-cut Colombian emerald with a radiating border of twelve pear-shaped diamonds (5.3 carats), which she later auctioned at Christie’s in 2002 to benefit the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation. Burton also requested that Bulgari deliver a selection of items to the Cleopatra set at Cinecittà Studios, where he picked out an emerald and diamond ring. As a bemused salesperson noted, “a few days later, a beautiful and elegant lady called at Bulgari’s and asked if the ring could be resized because it was too big”. The lady was not Taylor, but Mrs Sybil Burton; one can only speculate as to which of them received the larger rock!12 Taylor reminisced about her visits with Burton to the Rome store, “I used to get so excited, I would jump on top of him and practically make love to him in Bulgari”.13 Paolo Bulgari describes the selection process more sedately, “When [Burton] picked up a piece, he looked to [Taylor] to see her reaction; there was always an electricity in the air, a kind of telepathy so he always knew what she preferred. I think they had a very special relationship with jewels; they were a sort of completion of their love and a tangible symbol of the happy times they shared”.14
Taylor’s magnificent collection of emeralds from the firm centred around an impressive Necklace (1962), suspending a Pendant/Brooch (1958), both gifts from Burton. Taylor recounted another of their excursions to visit Gianni Bulgari when this set was presented for their appraisal,
We simply gasped, and I thought, ‘Oh my God! I’ve got to have the emeralds’. Gianni was so smart, because he didn’t just show us one piece, he showed us two different sets to choose from. The smaller of the two necklaces had a pendant that could also be worn as a brooch. So I tried them on, the huge one, then the smaller one, then the huge one, then the smaller one- the $100,000 limit was out the window. But I reasoned with Richard, ‘You see love, you can detach the pendant and wear it as a pin, so it’s really like getting two pieces for the price of one!’ We saw how beautiful it was both ways. The big diamonds around the brooch were 10 carats each … Finally, I tried them each on one more time, and I said, ‘Richard, you know, I think I like the smaller one’.15
Pieces from Taylor’s collection of Bulgari jewels found their way into publicity and on-set photographs, and even into the films themselves when she wore them in The V.I.Ps (Anthony Asquith, 1963) and Boom! (Joseph Losey, 1968), opposite Burton, and later in Ash Wednesday (Larry Peerce, 1973).
Bulgari has been associated with the Italian film industry since 1956 when the firm undertook to make the trophies for the newly established David di Donatello Award, Italy’s equivalent of the Oscar. Presented by L’accademia del Cinema Italiano (ACI), the design took the form of an 18-carat cast yellow gold miniature replica of the bronze version of David (1440s), held by the Museo Nazionale del Bargello in Florence, mounted on a malachite base. Some recipients, such as Marilyn Monroe (1926-62) in 1958, received the award in the form of a gold plaque with the image of the statue in relief. The David di Donatello Award was presented in nine further categories, all since ‘retired’, including Best Foreign Actor and Actress (1957-96), and Best Foreign Film Director (1966-90). Bulgari withdrew its services from the Award in 1960, but made several ‘David Speciale’ castings for the ceremonies in 2004 and 2005.
The popularity of the studio space at Cinecittà for international production companies led to it becoming known as ‘Hollywood on the Tiber’, owing to its expansive grounds, large sound stages, and the relatively low cost of labour. MGM used Cinecittà for their epic films Quo Vadis (Mervyn LeRoy, 1951) and Ben-Hur (William Wyler, 1959), and it became closely associated with the Italian filmmaker Frederico Fellini (1920-93). It was Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), with its iconic scene featuring the voluptuous Swedish star Anita Ekberg (1931-2015) frolicking in the Trevi Fountain, that ushered in a new era of glamour and opulence within the Italian capital. Bulgari played its part in this hedonistic narrative as the ‘go to’ purveyor of jewels for visiting stars, to the extent that fans, and the ubiquitous photographers, would congregate around the store hoping to catch a glimpse of its exclusive clientele. Appropriately enough, La Dolce Vita also ushered in the term ‘paparazzi’, named after the character of ‘Paparazzo’ (Walter Santesso), to describe their intrusive presence. Ekberg, who moved to Rome to consolidate her career, was quoted as saying, “Dolce vita is Roma, and Roma means Bulgari”.16
Internationally renowned Italian actresses who patronised Bulgari kept the firm’s work firmly in the public eye. Anna Magnani (1908-73), who would win the Academy Award for Best Actress for The Rose Tattoo (Daniel Mann, 1955), was known to have a large collection of Bulgari pieces that she wore frequently. Actress and artist Gina Lollobrigida had a keen eye for jewels, as evidenced by three pieces formerly in her collection. She wore her diamond and pearl drop Earrings (1950) in the comedy Come September (Robert Mulligan, 1961), and often paired her diamond Convertible necklace (1959) with a pair of diamond Earrings (1964) featuring Colombian emerald pendants. “The flourishing Dolce Vita epoch, when celebrities and notables from America came to Rome and discovered the Bulgari Condotti store, is key to narrate how Bulgari achieved an international fame. This is the reason why we invested a lot of effort to enrich this ‘glamorous’ angle within the Heritage Collection, incorporating pieces that belonged to famous actresses of those years, or with pieces from the 1950s-1960s very similar to the ones owned and loved by them, on and off the screen”, Boscaini observes.
Among Bulgari’s roster of famous clients, Ingrid Bergman (1915-82), Silvana Mangano (1930-89), and Sophia Loren wore Bulgari jewels in the films The Visit (Bernhard Wicki, 1964), Conversation Piece (Luchino Visconti, 1974), and Prêt-à-Porter (Robert Altman, 1994), respectively. The artist and filmmaker Andy Warhol (1928-87) was fascinated by the interplay of colour, shape and design in Bulgari’s pieces, all aspects integral to his own practice. He visited the store whenever he was in Rome, “because it is the best exhibition of contemporary art”. Warhol favoured the ‘Monete’ style gold necklaces, such as one with a Roman bronze centenionalis coin of Emperor Constantius II (AD. 317-361) sold as part of his estate in 1988.17
For the film Casino (Martin Scorsese, 1995), jewels from Bulgari functioned as a plot-point when Las Vegas hustler ‘Ginger McKenna’ (Sharon Stone) becomes the wife of casino owner ‘Sam Rothstein’ (Robert De Niro). He cements their marriage by gifting her with an entire suitcase of Bulgari pieces, on the understanding that she will retain them as her personal property. “With over a million in cash and jewels tucked in a bank in Vegas only for Ginger, she was secure and happy – she loved that shit”, Rothstein boasts. When the marriage breaks down, and he reneges on their financial agreement, it precipitates the disintegration of his empire. Eva Perón (1919-52), the second wife of the Argentine President Juan Perón (1895-1974), was also a Bulgari client. The firm supplied period-appropriate jewellery for Madonna to wear in Evita (Alan Parker, 1996), including a replica diamond flower spray brooch.18 “After all, jewels and fashion combined closely together through time to reflect the history of costume, and of women too. The movie stars of the past, for example, often used to buy jewels for themselves as an expression of their taste and personality, thus heralding the dynamic and cultivated career women of the decades to come”, Boscaini contends.
When items from the Heritage Collection are not on display overseas in exhibitions like the present one, or on loan for fashion shoots and events, some are displayed in a designated space called Domvs, in the Via Condotti store. Consisting of two rooms, a parlour with boiseries and sofas displaying photographs and original sketches, and a small museum where the jewellery is housed; the spaces were converted from the offices of Paolo and Nicola Bulgari (sons of Giorgio L. Bulgari). “This space can be visited only by appointment and I have to say that so far the most enthusiastic visitors are the young designers attending design schools who come to experience first hand how a style took shape over the decades”, Boscaini relates. “Due to space constraints, and to the Heritage activities constantly planned all around the world only a small – but very remarkable – part of the Heritage Collection is on display. Recalling the cabochon cut that Bulgari loves so much for gems, the ceiling is vaulted, lit up by crystal chandeliers … [the] jewels are displayed in cases and units designed to resemble the modern columns of a hidden temple. Many creations [now part] of the Bulgari Heritage Collection were designed and conceived for the first time there, so the Domvs really hosts the heart of the Maison”.
Although she presides over an extraordinary collection of silverware, objets d’art and jewels worth millions of dollars, Boscaini does not hesitate to nominate her preference. “My favored piece is a Choker [c.1979] with lapis lazuli and rubies made of elliptical shapes with cabochon cut stones. It is joyful, colorful and epitomizes the most appreciated hallmarks of the Bulgari style, such as the daring color combinations, the perfect wearability, the round forms”. Although this piece is not in the current exhibition, there are plenty of others to daydream over – nose pressed to the glass of course!
ITALIAN JEWELS BULGARI STYLE
Level 3, National Gallery of Victoria (International), 180 St Kilda Road, Melbourne (VIC), until 29 January 2017 FREE ENTRY – ngv.vic.gov.au – bulgari.com
1 Amanda Triossi (Ed.), Bvlgari: Between Eternity and History: From 1884 to 2009, 125 Years of Italian Jewels, Thames & Hudson, London, 2009, p.241. 2 Constantino G. Bulgari would later publish Argentieri, Gemmari e Orafi d’Italia (1958-74), an authoritative five-volume directory of Italian silver hallmarks from all periods, which brought the firm to the forefront of dealers and connoisseurs in this field worldwide. 3 Daniela Mascetti & Amanda Triossi, Bvlgari, Abbeville Press, New York, 1996, p.24. 4 Marion Fasel, “Jennifer Tilly Tells Us About Her Beautiful Baubles”, InStyle [US], 26 September, 2013. [online] 5 François Curiel (Ed.), “The Collection of Elizabeth Taylor: The Legendary Jewels (Evening Sale)”, auction catalogue, Christie’s, New York, 2011, p.115. 6 Dame Elizabeth Taylor, My Love Affair With Jewelry, Thames & Hudson, London, 2002, p.56. 7 Amanda Triossi (Ed.), op cit, p.241. 8 Ibid. 9 Dame Elizabeth Taylor, op cit, p.111. 10 Marion Fasel, op cit. 11 Ibid. Tilly also loaned the brooch to the Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA) for their showing of the Victoria & Albert Museum touring exhibition Italian Style: Fashion Since 1945 (2014-15). 12 Amanda Triossi (Ed.), op cit, p.241. 13 Alex Kuczynski, “Good Times and Bum Times, but She’s Here”, The New York Times (‘Sunday Style’ section), 29 September, 2002. 14 François Curiel (Ed.), op cit, p.115. 15 Dame Elizabeth Taylor, op cit, p. 59, 63. 16 Paola Di Trocchio & Amanda Dunsmore, Italian Jewels: Bvlgari Style, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2016, p.14. 17 Daniela Mascetti & Amanda Triossi, op cit, p.39. 18 Ibid, p.34.
Inga Walton is a writer and arts consultant based in Melbourne who contributes to numerous Australian and international publications. She has submitted copy, of an increasingly verbose nature, to Trouble since 2008. She is under the impression that readers are not morons with a short attention span, and would like to know lots of things. She still has very long hair.