The Rome-based jewelers Bulgari are virtually the only House to have made a world-wide reputation in the production of high jewelry since the Second World War. Most of the names which have remained famous in this recent period were originally established either towards the end of the 19th century or in the years between the two global wars.
Bulgari had, in fact, made its appearance in the Via Condotti as early as 1905, but it was not really until the 1960s that the imprint made by its distinctive combination of style, quality and craftsmanship won over the international jewelry world.
Throughout history, jewelry and the wearing of jewelry have had different meanings for different cultures. Among primitive people, a piece of metal, wood or stone personal adornment seems to have been a totem of superhuman powers, a charm with magical properties.
In various phases of our own civilization, jewelry has been looked on as a status symbol, an element of fashion, a craft, and in rare instances a form of art. It is precisely as an art that Bulgari interprets jewelry, following an Italian tradition that originated in the 15th century.
During them Italian Renaissance, the craftsmen involved in the making of jewelry developed a new approach to design.
Since the humanist philosophy reversed medieval cosmological teaching and placed the individual firmly at the centre of the universe, anything which helped to express this novel view was considered to be highly desirable. Jewelry, being directly related to the essence and circumstances of individuals, and being besides one of the oldest forms of decorative art, finally entered into the mainstream of social life. Its prevalence and connotations are documented in the work of all the great Renaissance painters.
The essence of jewelry design during the Renaissance was colour, and the predominance and original use of colour in its creations was later also to be a hallmark of the House of Bulgari.
The first of the family in Italy was Sotirio Bulgari, a silversmith who came there in 1881 from his native Greece. A specialist in the engraving of precious objects in silver, he settled first in Naples, where he opened a small shop in the Piazza dei Martini. Beginning from nothing, he seems quickly to have flourished in that city. But he was robbed of his earnings and decided to start over again in Rome. In 1884 he opened his first shop there, in the Via Sistina. It was not until some twenty years later that he moved the business to the Via Condotti, but not yet at the address where Andy Warhol liked to make his visits.
Sotirio had begun in the meantime to deal in stones and jewels, and brought up two sons, Giorgio and Costantino, whom he taught all he knew of the art of engraving. It was these two who gradually took over the running of their father's business, and turned from engraving to the production of modern jewelry.
During the 1930s the Bulgari brothers called on the services of an important architect of the period to design a new store at 10 Via Condotti, the same address where the main business is still conducted today. By the time of Sotirio's death in 1932, Bulgari's was a thriving concern and had grown enormously in stature, but was not yet universally regarded as one of the world's leading fine jewelers.
The sons had begun their introduction into the business from the early part of the century. In fact, Giorgio Bulgari made the first of many visits to Paris in 1900 and imbibed there the intoxicating splendours of the Ballets Russes which were to have such a significant influence on jewelry design.
As was the case with a number of jewelry dynasties, the two brothers were different but complementary. Giorgio be-came the creative genius of the House, with an expert knowledge of stones and jewelry-making techniques; Costantino specialized in antique silver and art objects, building up a collection of snuff boxes, jade and Italian and English silver. Costantino made it his life work to publish Argentieri, Gernmari e Orafi in Italia, the only existing directory of hallmarks of Italian silver of all periods.
Since the 18th century, the jewelry business had been concentrated in France, and Paris was the Mecca to which all the world's potentates and millionaires came to buy their extravagant baubles. In the early 20th century, jewelry designers were addicted to the so-called "French style" which, basic-ally speaking, implied the use of round diamonds set in prongs, surrounded by emeralds, rubies or sapphires. With these elements the Paris jewelers were able to make the magnificent parures, diadems, tiaras and crowns for which they had become world-famous.
Another strand in the design of jewelry at that time was the Oriental influence, based not only on the costumes and decors of the Ballets Russes, but also on archaeological discoveries and contacts with the Middle East and India. Motifs were freely borrowed from ancient Egyptian, Assyrian and Chinese prototypes.
The most revolutionary change that took place in the 20th century was the application of Art Deco motifs to jewelry; from about 1925, the clean, bold shapes of Art Deco jewels and costly objets were spread throughout the world by the Houses of Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, and Boucheron. In its turn, Bulgari introduced a new aesthetic into the art of jewelry.
In place of the "French style" diamond with its sur-round of other precious stones, Bulgari proposed a coloured stone, not set in prongs but in a hand-crafted gold bezel, in a frame of tapered baguette diamonds. The centre, instead of being held around the neck by more diamonds in prongs, was encased in a heavy gold chain. The first thing which became apparent in this new arrangement of precious materials was the use of forms. Bulgari brought to jewelry a new compactness and purity of form.
In itself, this was not strictly a step forward, but instead a sophisticated return to historical patterns. In Etruscan art Bulgari found a point of departure a new attitude towards jewelry founded on a re-thinking of Etruscan values.
Similarly, Bulgari researched the workmanship of ancient Rome, and reinterpreted this in a contemporary key. For example, the House introduced for the first time the use of antique coins and hand-made gold chains in fine jewelry.
Bulgari's aim in its designs has always been to maintain close ties with Italian history and art. Thus it has harked back to the Renaissance in its use of cameo and intaglio, and above all colour. Modern jewelry had been characterized for a long time by an unvarying colour triad created out of emeralds, rubies and sapphires. Bulgari introduced into the design vocabulary such new shades as violets, pinks and yellows. In numerous jewels, one finds such colour combinations as yellow gold together with white, red, or other materials for example, white and burnished steel. The use of "pippoli" small coloured stones which embellish the central stone is also frequent. From the techniques perfected in the Renaissance, Bulgari revived the cabochon cut for precious stones, marking a reversal in the dominant tradition of the early 20th century.
Bulgari's continuing and growing success has been sustained by its good fortune in having a family business tradition. The fruitful combination of Giorgio and Costantino was succeeded by Giorgio's three sons, Paolo, Gianni and Nicola, who took over the management in 1967.
In their hands, the Rome shop, already the premiere establishment in Italy took on a truly international character. It had been one of Giorgio's dreams to export the Bulgari production to the whole world, and his sons realized this ambition when they opened the first Bulgari shop abroad- New York in 1970.
Soon afterwards, their expansion became irresistible: Geneva in 1974, Monte Carlo in 1977, Paris itself in 1979, Milan in 1986, Tokyo in 1987, and Hong Kong, Osaka, Singapore and London in 1988. In 1989, there were two additional launchings in Munich and in a second location in New York on the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street. The year 1990 was earmarked for St Moritz.
Gianni Bulgari has ceased to take an active part in the firm's activities; on the other hand, in 1981 a nephew, Francesco Trapani, representing the fourth generation, joined his uncles and brought with him organizational skills which have facilitated Bulgari's tremendous international growth.
The Bulgari brothers now in charge are as different in their characters as the brothers in the preceding generation were. Nicola, who spends a good deal of time in the United States, is ebullient and outgoing. A born salesman, he is gifted at creating the right atmosphere in which to display and sell fine jewelry. After a period of training in diamond-cutting in Amsterdam, he learned the trade at the side of his father and uncle in Rome. He loves America because he was a young boy growing up in Rome at the time the city was liberated by American troops in 1945. In fact, the House of Bulgari received a citation from Generals Alexander and Clark for their help to Allied troops parachuted into Italy during the war.
Paolo prefers to keep a low profile, out of the reach of publicity; but his quiet facade belies the depth of his creative talents. He is widely acknowledged as one of the world's foremost jewelers, in terms of both technical skill and inspiration. In his capacity as the artistic director of Bulgari, he works in close collaboration with a team of seasoned designers, craftsmen and artists. One of his greatest talents is his ability to translate his understanding of his family's traditions into recognizably Bulgari jewels while continually moving forward with new and exciting forms and ideas.
The ideas may emerge from a simple combination of various stones or from a particular flash of intuition. Most often they are based on the prior study of certain motifs, certain themes of specific historical epochs, which are analyzed into their essential elements and reinterpreted in terms of contemporary jewelry or silver-ware. The creative idea takes shape as a watercolour or tempera drawing, which shows the depth and life the jewel will acquire, thus anticipating the emotion it will arouse once it is actually made.
From this first drawing, the idea is explored and developed creatively to determine the materials and colours best suited to it, to see how it will be worn and how it fits in with the Bulgari tradition and style.
One of the characteristic elements of Bulgari jewelry is the influence of ancient Greek objects and models. The symmetry and proportions of Bulgari products are based more upon art and architecture than on nature a factor which distinguishes the Bulgari jewel from that of the French masters.
Bulgari has made many breakthroughs in creating what is now recognized as "the Bulgari style". It was the first, for example, in the 1950s, to substitute the use of yellow gold for platinum or white gold in the setting of precious stones, and it was a pioneer in the use of cabochon semi-precious stones in fine jewelry to obtain particular chromatic effects.
Bulgari's importance as one of the most influential of contemporary jewelry Houses derives mainly from two factors: the passion of the Bulgari brothers for beauty and quality, and the firm's innovations in the field of design. It looks on jewels, as well as its other products (such as watches, pens, lighters, and a whole range of silverware), as the culmination of beautiful forms and colours created and adapted specifically for the world of today.
Writer – Thames & Hudson