Jewelry House Histories: Bulgari

Bulgari – or Bvlgari – is synonymous with the glamour and decadence of Rome, the city where the jewelry and watch brand was established in 1884 by the Greek silversmith Sotirio Voulgaris (Bulgari). It soon thrived, thanks to British tourists who were visiting Rome as part of their Grand Tour.

Some telltale signs of Bulgari’s design are the references to imagery, architectural details and silhouettes from ancient Rome. The Bulgari logo is often spelt Bvlgari, in reference to the classical Italian alphabet.

Snapshot of Bulgari Jewelry over the last century

Sotirio Bulgari’s sons, Giorgio and Costantino, joined him in the family business and proposed a new direction away from watches and silverware, and towards high jewelry. The creations of the 1920s reflected French high jewelry traditions – platinum and diamonds were the order of the day, with a focus on Art Deco designs. The following decade saw more geometric diamond motifs, often set together with coloured gemstones. But by the 1940s, the house had established its own style with plenty of yellow gold, geometrically abstract designs and graceful curves.

With the vibrance of the ’60s, Bulgari brought a pop of colour to contemporary jewelry. The focus, for Bulgari, was on the visual impact created by their jewelry, regardless of the value of the gemstones. This focus on unparalleled color and pattern set Bulgari apart from their more conventional contemporaries. 

As Rome’s reputation as a glamorous party town rose, so Bulgari bold, trend-setting statement jewelry became sought-after by an international clientele. The early 1970s took the maison to Europe and the US, where the next generation of the Bulgari family made sure that the brand catered to the tastes of modern women. Iconic pieces from the ’70s include the Bvlgari Bvlgari watch, released in 1977 and the Trombino ring.

The ’80s ’90s saw Bulgari launch versatile, modular pieces designed to be worn from morning to night, such as the Parentesi collection, which borrowed a detail (the travertine junctions) from the Eternal City’s pavements for its signature motif. 

Throughout its history, unusual materials, such as steel, porcelain, silk and even wood, have elevated Bulgari creations above many of its contemporaries. The house’s bold use of colorful gemstones was much admired – and imitated. 

Today, the brand excels at everything from fragrances and luxury hotels to high-end watches. When it comes to the brand’s timepieces, instantly recognizable, iconic designs meet outstanding mechanical workings. The maison has partnered with Girard-Perregaux, one of the finest Swiss watchmaking manufacturers, for its technical work. It also acquired the Swiss watch companies, Daniel Roth and Gerald Genta, among others, to help it produce luxury watches with quality elements and mechanisms.

A Hollywood Hit

During the booming decades of the 1950s and 1960s, Rome – and Bulgari – were put firmly on the map by films such as Roman Holiday and La Dolce Vita. During their time in Rome, stars such as Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman and Grace Kelly discovered the Bulgari shop in Via Condotti and became ardent fans of the maison. Bulgari jewels have since been spotted in Hollywood films, such as Casino with Sharon Stone and Mission Impossible starring Tom Cruise. Spectacular pieces have been trotted down red carpets at the Academy Awards, the Golden Globes and film festivals from Cannes to Venice.

Bulgari's original store, Via Condotti

Bulgari’s original store, Via Condotti. “Bulgari at Via Condotti in Rome” by Carlo Raso is marked with CC PDM 1.0.

Elizabeth Taylor glitters in Bulgari

The actress Elizabeth Taylor glittered in Bulgari jewels – it was one of her favourite maisons. The sumptuous Bulgari pieces perfectly matched her aesthetic and were a prominent part of her vast jewelry collection. She visited the Condotti store often, especially while filming Cleopatra in Rome. Many of the pieces were gifted to her by her husband, Richard Burton. Taylor’s jewelry collection went under the hammer in 2011, setting records for the most valuable sale of jewelry in auction history. Bulgari bought back nine pieces, which have become part of the Bulgari Heritage Collection.

Key Designs

Bulgari “Serpenti”

In ancient Rome, the coiled serpent symbolized wisdom and immortality. Bulgari has employed the snake motif throughout its history, using it in their lavish, polished yellow gold snake wrist watches, first designed in the 1940s, its diamond-encrusted head covering the dial of the timepiece. This design has since undergone multiple incarnations in various metals, from gold to steel, and can now be wrapped around the wrist several times. 

The Bulgari Trombino Ring

The ring was so named Trombino (little trumpet) owing to its trumpet-like shape. The trumpet provided a platform for a generous gemstone, flanked by pave diamonds and baguette-cut gemstones (often yet more diamonds). A Trombino ring was famously bought by Elizabeth Taylor for her personal jewelry collection.

Bulgari’s Trembling Flowers

Flowers have long been a favourite with the maison, beginning with its “en tremblant” brooches, created in the 1950s and 1960s. These feature diamond corollas (petals and flower heads). Another example is the Fiorever line, which draws inspiration from the four-petal flower venerated by the Romans as a symbol of happiness.

The Bvlgari Bvlgari Collection 

In 1977, the Bvlgari Bvlgari timepiece became an international hit. Inscribed on the cylindrical case, the Bulgari logo is an integral part of the design. This was inspired by ancient Roman coins, on which inscriptions circled the image of the emperor. The simplified digits take their cue from the columns of Roman temples. The watch remains a staple of the Bulgari brand to this day and has been recreated in many iterations. There was even a limited-edition plastic version, which sold out immediately. 

Bulgari Monete coin collection

The Bulgari Monete jewels made their debut in the 1960s. Conceived by Nicola Bulgari in 1966, these necklaces, bracelets and earrings feature an array of antique coins from ancient Greece and Rome. In all the pieces the coin remains unaltered, engraved with the name of the emperors, the dates they were in power and the type of coin.