Books: The Art of Bulgari:
La Dolce Vita and Beyond, 1950–1990

Elyse Zorn Karlin
August 29, 2014
The Art of Bulgari: La Dolce Vita and Beyond
By Martin Chapman and Amanda Triossi, 174 pp., hardcover, illus., publ. by The Arts Museums of San Francisco/Delmonico Books/Prestel, 2013, $34.95
For those who associate Bulgari with vivid colored stone cabochons or antique Roman coins mounted in gold jewelry, Chapman and Triossi’s book is an eye-opener. The Art of Bulgari served as the catalog for the exhibition of the same name at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, intended to chronicle the succession of glamorous celebrities who have worn Bulgari from the dolce vita years of Italian cultural creativity through today. The authors also aim to trace the development of Bulgari’s creative aesthetic through compelling and sometimes surprising examples of its work. In both respects, they succeed.
 
The jewelry and luxury goods firm is so strongly associated with Rome that it may surprise readers to know that the founder, Sortirio Bulgari, opened his first shop in his native Greece. He later relocated to Naples, and finally to Rome in 1881, where the flagship store, opened in 1905, still stands at 10 Via Condotti.
 
Prior to World War II, the company operated as a traditional goldsmith shop, but thanks to Sortirio’s forward-thinking sons Costantino and Giorgio, Bulgari began to take a more contemporary direction. Jewelry inspired by Greco-Roman classicism, the Italian Renaissance, and the 19th-century Roman school of goldsmiths took hold, as Bulgari acquired important gemstones and created exclusive luxury pieces, including an emerald and diamond necklace commissioned by American socialite Brooke Astor.
 
In the post-war 1950s and ’60s, American movies were often filmed in Italy, where production costs were advantageous. As a result, many Hollywood stars fell in love with Bulgari’s bold new style, which featured large pieces set with colored gemstones. Most notable of these was Elizabeth Taylor, although Audrey Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman, Ava Gardner, and Gina Lollobrigida were also steady customers. Wealthy and influential socialites, including Barbara Hutton and Diana Vreeland, also became collectors.
 
Beginning with the 1950s, Chapman and Triossi show us the evolution, decade by decade, of Bulgari’s distinctive style. The use of color in so many Bulgari pieces stands out, but some gold and diamond jewels featured in this book, such as the Fireworks necklace and the Parentese parure, both from the Heritage Collection, are likewise dazzling.
 
The book devotes a chapter to pieces from Elizabeth Taylor’s Bulgari collection. Taylor is quoted as saying, “Undeniably, one of the biggest advantages of working on Cleopatra in Rome was [the Bulgari store].” It is clear how dearly she loved this jewelry, wearing her Heritage Collection platinum necklace with emeralds and diamonds to receive an Academy Award in 1966 and again when she was introduced to Queen Elizabeth II of England.
 
The Art of Bulgari also showcases whimsical pieces  that are relatively unknown. Such items include a gold measuring stick (1970), a silver-and-gold St. Moritz cigarette case (1977), a silver-and-gold tennis ball canister (1980), and a wonderful boat paperweight (1974) fashioned of sterling and gilded silver to look like a boat of folded paper. An exotic gold table clock with onyx, mother-of-pearl, and diamond (1980) is set off by two antique Chinese jade belt hooks.
 
The text is enhanced by excellent photography, with many jewels displayed in full-page plates. Original sketches of jewelry designs also add visual interest and insight, and photos of famous clientele wearing their Bulgari jewels abound. From magnificent bib necklaces and snake bracelet watches, to the whimsical Star-Spangled Banner series and ice cream cone brooches, this is a stunning look at Bulgari.
 
Chapman is a curator at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and Triossi, a jewelry historian and consultant, is curator of the Bulgari Heritage Collection. Together, the authors do an admirable job of presenting Bulgari’s history and cultural impact.

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