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Bulgari’s Luxe Years

A new exhibition showcases Bulgari creations from 1950 to 1990, when the firm’s distinctive gold and gemstone-laden designs established its reputation for high-fashion jewelry with a decidedly Italian accent.

By Phyllis Schiller


Diamond and platinum bracelet, circa 1955,
from the Bulgari Heritage Collection.

Photograph © Antonio Barrella Studio Orizzonte.
The first American museum showing of Bulgari jewelry, “The Art of Bulgari: La Dolce Vita & Beyond, 1950-1990,” offers a decade-by-decade look at the design elements that helped make the company’s brand synonymous with Italian high-style jewelry. The exhibition opens September 21 and runs through February 17, 2014, at the de Young Museum, part of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Martin Chapman, curator in charge of European Decorative Arts and Sculpture, worked closely with Bulgari curator Amanda Triossi in the selection of the 145 pieces on display, most of which were culled from the Bulgari Heritage Collection.
   Although modern-day Bulgari is part of the French luxury group LVMH, its roots go back to Greece, where founder Sotirio Bulgari was a silversmith in Epirus, a region in northwest Greece. He eventually set up shop in Rome in 1881, later working with sons Giorgio and Constantino. By 1910, the family firm was creating jewelry with precious stones, following the fashion dictates of the time, which looked to Paris for design leadership. By the late 1950s, however, Bulgari began establishing its own look and “special” character, says Chapman, “that separates it from other jewelry houses.”
   Particularly from the 1960s onward, he notes, the boldness of their jewelry, their use of rounded forms and cabochon gemstones in new and unusual combinations — pairing sapphires with turquoise or emeralds with amethyst rather than white diamonds — helped fuel their design growth as documented in the 40 years the exhibition spans. 

Decades on Display
   
Explains Chapman, “the exhibition is divided into four decades — the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.” There are multimedia aspects and short videos that will help the visitor gain a better understanding of the craftsmanship and design elements of the pieces. One video will show how one of the more modern pieces displayed was actually put together. An accompanying movie series features films in which Bulgari jewelry was worn, including, of course, “La Dolce Vita.”
   Each of the displays showcases the design milestones achieved within the ten years. Asked to summarize some of the star attractions, Chapman cites “the tremblant brooches from the late-1950s, floral sprays made largely of colored and white diamonds and emeralds. They are some of the most charming pieces. The flower heads are on springs so they nod and there is a connection back to eighteenth-century jewelry.”
   The 1960s highlights are as diverse as the “Seven Wonders” emerald necklace and a 1968 shield-shaped table clock, illustrating the “combination of color, the sense of volume, the richness that is very Bulgari. I think in the 1960s, they start to really anchor their own designs in their Roman roots by bringing ancient coins into the jewelry, by having Italian Renaissance–influenced designs, pendants with very, very compact sets of cabochon jewels in unusual color combinations.” From the 1960s onward, gold becomes “very dominant as seen in the snake bracelets, the flexible Tubogas jewelry.”
   In the 1970s, the heavy, chunky, gold jewelry is a Bulgari staple that becomes, says Chapman, “a standard in jewelry all over the world.” The decade also includes designs of everyday items with a “touch of whimsy or the influence of pop art.” On the glamourous side, there were the “Melone” evening bags, works of art suspended on a silk tassel, “that were photographed on almost every celebrity in that decade.”
   The modular gold “Parentesi” line suited the 1980s fashions. Strongly structured, says Chapman, “they have an architectural nature, the necklaces in particular complementing the ‘Dynasty’ style.”
   Andy Warhol famously compared a Bulgari showroom to a “contemporary art museum,” notes Chapman, “showing how far ahead Bulgari was in terms of jewelry design and how they captured the spirit of the decade.” 

Cause Célèbre
   
The strong association of Bulgari jewelry with the doyennes and divas of society and cinema was a very deliberate marketing strategy, says Chapman, and is acknowledged in the exhibit. “You have someone like Princess Grace wearing a chunky Bulgari chain necklace set with a coin, as well as prominent Americans like Claire Boothe Luce and Brooke Astor seen and photographed in Bulgari jewels.” Cinema stars like Italy’s own Anna Magnani, Gina Lollobrigida and Sophia Loren shopped Bulgari, adding their movie-star mystique.
   But perhaps the biggest aficionado was Elizabeth Taylor and the exhibit includes a separate section devoted to her long association with the Italian jeweler. “Bulgari bought back several of the major pieces from the Taylor sales,” says Chapman, “and they are some of the most spectacular pieces of jewelry in the exhibition.”

Lasting Appeal
   
The siren call of the celebrity connection has helped vintage Bulgari pieces not only hold their appeal but their value. At Sotheby’s May 2013 Magnificent and Noble Jewels auction in Geneva, a collection of jewels owned by Gina Lollobrigida included several 1950s and 1960s Bulgari designs that all sold close to or over their high estimates. But it was the 2011 sale of Elizabeth Taylor’s jewels, says Gus Davis, partner, Camilla Dietz Bergeron, Ltd., New York City, that helped create a real resurgence of interest. “I think the jewelry has always been on people’s minds, but since the auction, there’s been a growing interest in the jewelry, especially the vintage Bulgari pieces.
   “We have requests for the classic Tubogas jewelry and long chains. People like the more esoteric pieces like the ancient coin jewelry, anything with a serpent theme, especially bracelets and watches, hanging earrings.” It also, says Davis, appeals to a broad age group. One reason he cites is that despite a reputation as “movie-star jewelry,” the pieces have a casual feel that can be dressed up or down. “To me, Bulgari is the epitome of how Italian women dress. It’s really hot right now.”
   Nancy Revy, chief executive officer (CEO) of Beladora.com, also acknowledges the demand for those “wonderful vintage pieces or the newer pieces that are big with color. To me, Bulgari is synonymous with color, colored gemstones and great Italian goldwork…the classic 1960s and ’70s pieces that were worn by Gina Lollobrigida, Sophia Loren and Elizabeth Taylor. There is a new desire for these pieces from the younger thirty-somethings who are interested in that luxe look. I have noticed an upswing of desire in the past few years for the older, iconic Bulgari coin jewelry. There’s a new appreciation of how fabulous it was and with the museum show coming out, it seems to be out there in the zeitgeist.”
   And the prices for the vintage pieces definitely have gone up, Davis says. “I think the market favors it right now. The prices are very strong. There’s not a lot of it around; it’s gotten scarcer to find.” Revy agrees that “It’s hard to get those big, vintage pieces.”
   “Bulgari produced some really remarkable jewelry during the period from 1950 through 1990,” sums up Chapman, “and it’s interesting not only from the point of view of design and craftsmanship but also the aspect of social history and the association with movie stars and celebrities.”

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