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.
Elyse Zorn Karlin is a journalist, jewelry historian, and freelance curator. She is co-director of the Association for the Study of Jewelry & Related Arts, editor-in-chief of Adornment magazine, and the author of several jewelry books and exhibition catalogs.