La Dolce Vita with Bulgari

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Colour. Innovation. Integrity. These are the three words which sum up what Bulgari stands for and which help to explain why, 130 years since its creation, Bulgari is still the most beloved of Italy’s fine jewellers. The brand has had many illustrious customers and moments over the years but it is in the world of cinema that Bulgari really made its mark and set itself a cut above.

The house’s client list, past and present, is a definitive who’s who of the film industry – both from Hollywood and from Cinecittà, one of the largest and most iconic film studios in Rome – and in Rome’s heyday of the ’50s and ’60s the Bulgari store was the place to see and be seen. No self-respecting traveller would visit the city without purchasing a trinket and lingering to catch a glimpse of cinematic royalty.

The relationship between the house and the silver screen runs deep. Anita Ekberg, the star of Fellini’s classic blockbuster La Dolce Vita (1960), refused to wear any jewellery other than Bulgari.

And Elizabeth Taylor would visit Gianni Bulgari (grandson of Bulgari’s founder) at the store every day while in Rome for the filming of Cleopatra (1963), where they would laugh and indulge in gossip. Later, when Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor would begin their scandalous affair, the Bulgari store became a favourite place for the couple to meet, a safe haven from media scrutiny and prying eyes.

Ever since opening its first store in Rome’s Via Sistina in 1884, and later on moving to the now legendary store on Via dei Condotti, Bulgari has been the ultimate Italian success story.

The founder, Sotirio Boulgaris, an émigré to Rome, was fortunate enough find himself at the right time in the right place for opening a new business. Rome had just been appointed the capital of Italy and consequently a new wave of elite travellers had begun flowing in. The Eternal City was, and still is, an essential part of the brand’s DNA. As Anita Ekberg once expressed it – “Dolce Vita is Roma and Roma means Bulgari”.

Could you tell us about the founder of Bulgari? Who was Sotirio Boulgaris?
The origins of the Boulgaris family can be tracked back to the small Greek village of Kallarytes, in the Epirus region in the northwest of Greece. The Bulgari ancestors were among the silversmiths of the village. Working side by side with his father Georgis, Sotirio Boulgaris became a skilled artisan.

At that time, under the Ottoman rule, the Epirus region was very unsafe, often subject to robberies and sieges (the region remained under Ottoman rule long after Greece became independent in 1830, despite numerous rebellions which were each time suppressed).

Due to the political instability of the area, countless incidents severely affected the business. Sotirio Boulgaris thus decided to leave continental Greece and headed to Corfù and then to Naples, where in 1880 he opened a small shop in collaboration with a Greek partner.

Unfortunately the shop was burgled and he was forced to close. But now he had a new destination in mind: Rome, the newly appointed Italian capital, a city which offered exciting opportunities to develop a business.

In 1884, Sotirio managed to set up his first own shop in Via Sistina, 85. The street was located in a city district known as the Tridente, (as it encompassed three streets – Via del Corso, Via del Babuino and Via Frattina) loved by Romans, artists and wealthy Americans and Englishmen for their walks.

Was he selling fine jewellery from the beginning?
At Via Sistina, Sotirio started a new life, since owning his own shop allowed him to fully express all his mastery and creativity. As a skilled silversmith, Sotirio was able to produce refined silver ornaments. In that period, he crafted buckles, oval medallions and girdles modelled in the Neo-Hellenic style, drawing on the features of Epirot ornaments used for traditional costumes, combining Greek, Byzantine and Islamic design elements.

The pierced decorations represented mythological or allegorical figures as well as floral and foliate scroll (leaf-like) motifs. His ornaments proved a huge success, especially among English tourists, who after the London Exhibition of 1851 on traditional European costumes were fond of “peasant jewellery”. In 1894, as business flourished, Sotirio opened another shop at 28 Via dei Condotti, and Italianised his surname.

The sign in fact reported: S. Bulgari – Argenteria Artistica, Antiquités, Curiosités, Bijoux. In this shop he started to trade a variety of goods, ranging from the gold and silver jewels he crafted to antiques and fashionable bric-à-brac. In 1905, a new shop was opened at 10 Via Condotti. The original name chosen for this store was “Old Curiosity Shop”.

What do you recognise as the launch of the brand? What were the circumstances surrounding its opening?
We consider 1884, in coincidence with the opening of the store in Via Sistina, as the founding year of the Bulgari Company. At that time, the archaeological areas like the Palatine, the Colosseum or the imposing Christian basilicas offered tourists a magnificent cultural and artistic landscape to be discovered.

Actually, in light of these unique assets, since the 18th century, Italy (and Rome in particular) was the mandatory destination for artists, noblemen and rich members of the middle class desiring to complete their “education”.

When Rome was appointed the Italian capital, its entry into a national commercial system, and the long-standing flow of rich and cultivated travellers, attracted a new generation of foreign, dynamic and enterprising merchants and businessmen willing to start or expand their businesses. Among them, many Greek merchants like Sotirio.

Where did the idea of using a lot of colour, that is now synonymous with Bulgari jewellery, come from?
It was Giorgio Bulgari, son of Sotirio, who started to introduce the daring colour combinations Bulgari is renowned for. Working side by side with his father, Giorgio began travelling abroad to develop the business and became more focused on the purchase of gemstones and jewellery-making. He went to Paris – the land of jewellery in the 1920s and 30s.

The French school of jewellery was dominant then and until the end of the 1950s Bulgari followed the French design and Parisian way of conceiving jewellery. Then, upon Giorgio’s impulse, the brand started to move away from the French school to forge its own style, made of experimentation, innovation and cross-fertilisation between the worlds of jewellery, art and architecture.

Where does Bulgari take most of its inspiration from?
It is a difficult question as at Bulgari inspiration can come from anything: a painting, an exhibition, a celebration, a landscape, a monument. Jewels are always designed to adorn women by radiating their taste and charisma. Yet behind each jewel there is much more.

Each piece can also tell a story of how a single detail, an idea or a motif can kindle the imagination and be transferred to a sketch, and from a sketch to a jewel. Rome, for example, has been a powerful source of inspiration since 1884; its domes are conveyed through Bulgari’s typical cabochon cut of the stones as well as the pure lines of Roman vestiges which have been reprised in the refined geometry of Bulgari’s design.

The celebrated Bulgari Parentesi motif of interlocking lines and curves has been inspired by the travertine junctions of the streets of Rome and even the Bulgari logo pays a tribute to ancient Roman inscriptions.

What do you think makes Rome so special?
Rome is indeed a magical city where present and past coexist in a way that is unique in the world, thus making you perceive the strength of history, the power of timeless beauty, the unceasing flow of human progress.

In the 1950s, Rome was suddenly catapulted to the position of the new place to be. Was the wedding of Hollywood actor and idol Tyrone Power and Mexican actress Linda Christian there (as the couple also met in Rome) the beginning of this rise in popularity, as well as initiating the connection between cinema and Bulgari? Why did Tyrone and Linda choose Bulgari to create their wedding bands?
Film historians claim that their fabulous wedding marked the beginning of the golden age of Italian film as it inspired MGM’s decision to shoot the blockbuster Quo Vadis at Rome’s Cinecittà. For sure it was the first glamorous event providing a global media impact and visibility for Rome. Tyrone Power and Linda Christian were among the prestigious Bulgari patrons who ignited the worldwide brand awareness.

However, they did not go to Bulgari accidentally. Already in the 1920s and 30s, Bulgari had been internationally renowned for its refined jewellery and could count on prestigious American patrons including Hollywood stars like Mary Pickford, Ava Gardner or Shelley Winters.

Bulgari’s devotees also included members of the aristocracy, industrialists and politicians. Rooted in one of the most prestigious areas of the Eternal City, the Bulgari Condotti store had long been the favourite destination for celebrities to buy gifts or jewels for themselves.

How did these long-lasting relationships with film stars like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Anita Ekberg (who wore only Bulgari jewellery), Audrey Hepburn or Sophia Loren come about?
In the 1950s, Italy’s post-war economic growth and social modernisation ignited the interest of the movie industry in Rome as a potential film set. Inaugurated by the fabulous wedding of Tyrone Power and Linda Christian, the Dolce Vita era (the sweet life), as it became known, thus began and the Eternal City became the set of choice for American film productions. Anita Ekberg therefore moved to Rome at the end of 1950s to consolidate her career and she then worked with Fellini for the film La Dolce Vita.

As happened to the other celebrities during the era, while in Rome she became acquainted with the Bulgari creations and fell in love. It is a huge honour for the company that all the jewels she owned were from Bulgari. At that time the sons of Sotirio, Giorgio and Costantino, who ran the business after the death of their father in 1932, had personal relationships with the special clients and celebrities.

Subsequently, Giorgio’s sons – Gianni, Paolo and Nicola – became involved with the family business at the end of the 1950s and maintained these relationships with the movie stars, VIPs and socialites visiting the store.

As for Elizabeth Taylor, when she was in Rome to film Cleopatra, her husband Eddie Fisher presented her with several Bulgari creations before news of her love affair with Richard Burton spread like wildfire. The new stellar couple then visited the Bulgari Condotti store often, as Richard Burton used to celebrate their love affair with fabulous Bulgari pieces.

The room in the Condotti store where they used to choose jewels with Gianni Bulgari has been restored in the recent refurbishment by architect Peter Marino, and that intimate place is still called today the salotto Taylor.

Even companies from the film industry, like Cinema Fox, commissioned pieces from Bulgari; for example, the hand mirror made for the set of Cleopatra that Elizabeth Taylor loved so much that she kept it for her private collection. Did the stars recommend and introduce Bulgari to them? Or was it the other way round?

Undeniably during the Dolce Vita epoch, Bulgari was the right jeweller in the right place. Having said this, many movie stars loved to wear their own jewels on the set, thus making them become part of the characters they interpreted. Elizabeth Taylor did that but also Ingrid Bergman, Soraya, Anna Magnani or Gina Lollobrigida. So we can say that the stars introduced Bulgari to the film sets.

Does Bulgari still take inspiration from the 1950s and 1960s era of cinema?
In 2013 we launched the DIVA collection, inspired by the unforgettable icons from the early 20th century until today. Blending exquisite craftsmanship, refined details, bold design and stunning coloured gemstones, each one-of-a-kind creation was designed having in mind a destination, like Costa Smeralda, Capri, Positano or Portofino, which in the 1960s were favoured among movie stars and jet-setters. The exceptional precious stones they mounted had very soft contours and warm colours, thus evoking the sun, the pebbles on the beach, the Mediterranean lush vegetation.

Bulgari is considered a symbol of la dolce vita among other things. What does the sweet life mean according to Bulgari?
Dolce Vita is a truly inspiring concept evoking leisure, self-indulgence, and a relaxed way of life where people enjoy all the pleasures life can bring. The way Bulgari conceives jewels is very close to this concept. Every jewel must be in fact a joy to see and to wear. Besides an unquestionable aesthetic made of daring chromatic combinations and perfectly balanced volumes, the Bulgari jewels must always be wearable and comfortable, like a second skin.

What are the main features of a Bulgari piece of jewellery? How can you tell that it is Bulgari?
I would pinpoint three main features: the daring colour combinations, the sense of volume and the exquisite craftsmanship, where even the back of the jewel must be perfect and pleasant to the eye, like the front.

Why do you think people love fine jewellery so much? What is it about jewellery that makes us often emotionally attached to it?
I think that one of the reasons we are so fascinated by jewels and precious stones is that they are immortal. Moreover, they are often tokens of love and mark the transmission of love from one generation to another.

What is the process of commissioning a piece of jewellery from Bulgari? How are all the details decided? How do you choose which gems to use for that specific piece and that specific client?
Be it a bespoke jewel or not, the key element in the creation of a high jewellery piece is always the stone. Sometimes the client brings the stones to us or we propose a set of stones we have in stock. The creative process begins with the cut, carat weight and colour of the gems.

The jewel’s design is conceived to fully enhance the intrinsic characteristics of the stones. Moreover, the personality and tastes of the client are translated into the Bulgari stylistic codes. Several variations are proposed, discussed and analysed in detail by our team of designers.

As soon as the ideas become beautiful designs, the client is invited to choose the most suitable style. Finally, in the process of transforming the design into a three-dimensional object, every phase is attentively monitored, with special attention reserved for minute details, since it is essential that every component fits perfectly into the whole.

Bulgari just celebrated its 130th anniversary. What does this milestone mark in Bulgari’s history? And where is the brand going from there?
We celebrated the 130th anniversary in coincidence with the renovation of our historical Condotti store, so it was a double tribute to our rich heritage and to a city which has brought so much luck and prosperity to the brand. For the future, Bulgari will continue to build on its main assets – creativity, innovation and distinctive style.

by Sara Hesikova