October 11, 2016
By 1961, Italian jewellery house Bulgari was a respectable 80 years old, its swank marble-front shop at number 10 on Rome’s Via Condotti was patronised by Europe’s rich and royal and it was not, by any stretch, in dire need of a global branding campaign so potent it would out-trumpet the Cuban Missile Crisis.
But it got one anyway. Bulgari got Elizabeth Taylor.
The glamorous star of movie epic Cleopatra, underway at the time at Cinecitta film studios six miles outside Rome, was also a connoisseur of “high” (read: very expensive) jewellery, a besotted Bulgari fan, and co-protagonist of the most deliciously shocking scandal in Hollywood history.
That was underway too.
A more fortuitous confluence of circumstances could hardly be dreamed by even the most ambitious public relations brand consultant today.
Half a century later, Bulgari is still the sum of its 130 year past, particularly those La Dolce Vita years – also dubbed the Hollywood on the Tiber era – when Taylor was the bullseye of a jet-setting Italian/American film community camped out in some of Rome’s fanciest real estate.
Bulgari became THE hot jewellery brand and in a decade, swelled from a single – albeit iconic – store to luxury addresses in Paris, Geneva, New York, and Monte Carlo, followed by 250 more by the mid 2000s.
Taylor was undeniably Bulgari’s rocket fuel in the 1960s but she wasn’t the only diva on the via.
Whenever Taylor’s lush raven hair, blue-violet eyes, magnificent jewel-draped décolleté and titbits from her adulterous scandal were splashed across the tabloids, they were invariably flanked by paparazzi snaps and less lurid reports of other glamazon royals, movie beauties and businesswomen, often glinting in their own Bulgaris.
Gina Lollobrigida and Sophia Loren, Anita Ekberg (star of Federico Fellini’s seminal La Dolce Vita), Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman, Barbara Hutton, Claudia Cardinale, Anna Magnani, princesses and countesses and even Mussolini’s daughter were among them, the Beyonces, Rihannas and red carpet Kardashians of the 1950s and 60s.
Bulgari heritage curator Lucia Boscaini has no qualms about us contemplating all this glamour and historic gorgeousness as we move around the NGV’s Italian Jewels – Bulgari style. It’s part of the art and as integral to the Bulgari experience as cut diamonds, cabochons and exquisite craftsmanship.
“We are a company; we are not a museum,” Boscaini says from Rome, where Bulgari’s original flagship is still an iconic stop on the Via Condotti. “Jewellery is an expression of art, but its style and evolution are parallel with history.”
Bulgari may not be a museum, but it has blurred its own commercial/cultural divide in recent years, by re-acquiring some of its most stupendous jewels for the heritage collection on show at the NGV.
Among them, the gob-smacking classical necklace of 16 step-cut Columbian emeralds and knuckle-sized pendant given to Taylor, with matching brooch and ring, as a wedding gift by Burton when their tumultuous affair was replaced by an on-off-on-off tumultuous marriage.
Other acquisitions reinforce Bulgari’s most memorable innovations since the 1950s: jutting trombino (trumpet) cocktail rings, for example, and richly coloured cabochon and diamond bib necklaces, bracelets and chandelier earrings with lavish gold settings.
Bulgari is renowned for its twisted tubogas (snakey segmented gold) serpenti watches and bangles set with gems, ancient Roman and Greek coins also set with diamonds, gold and platinum, elegantly sculpted melone click purses and sautoir pendant necklaces and its revival of 18th century French tremblant brooches, delicately engineered to quiver so their gemstones flash as they refract light.
Bulgari’s heritage collection in other words, now carefully managed by Boscaini, infuses perceptions around its new lines of jewellery, watches, perfumes and handbags. “Communication is part of that leverage (around heritage) to really see the (building of) awareness and image of this brand,” explains Boscaini.
Greek silversmith Sotirio Boulgaris is the first entry in Bulgari’s heritage. He changed his name to the Italianate Bulgari after moving to Rome and officially starting the company in 1884 with a show window full of antique silver, objet d’art and curios.
Sotirio died in 1932 and his sons, Giorgio the charmer and Constantino the academic, ramped up Bulgari’s core business of luxury jewellery, cashing in particularly well in Italy’s post-war recovery and subsequent econonomic boom. (These days, Giorgio’s sons, Paolo and Nicola, are president and vice-president of Bulgari.)
With their goldsmith collaborator Ubaldo Crescenzi (whose daughters and grandchildren still manage the Bulgari workshop) the Bulgari brothers gained market traction as design innovators and buyers of exceptional stones and, by the 1950s and 60s, were perfectly positioned to seduce Rome’s Hollywood on the Tiber jet-setters with their dashing ways and jewels that were bolder, more colourful and frankly, more glorious, than anything the prevailing prim Parisian art deco style had offered for decades.
“It was a very strong, robust aesthetic,” says Amanda Dunsmore, the NGV’s senior curator of decorative arts and co-curator of Italian Jewels – Bulgari Style. “They didn’t stick to that traditional pairing of precious gems with diamonds; they used the full chromatic range of gems including semi-precious; very, unusual for the time.”
Very effective too. Turquoise, citrine, amethyst; Bulgari bought these “lesser” gems for their vibrancy and colour and set them in jutting ranks of gold and platinum with diamonds, emeralds, rubies and sapphires from Kashmir, Burma, Sri Lanka.
Later, it would relax its list even more, into coral, mother-of-pearl, enamel and porcelain; anything to achieve the precise, often witty and invariably striking effect they required.
The very definition of high jewellery, in fact, was being joyfully dismantled.
In Italian jewels – Bulgari Style, a particular turquoise, amethyst and emerald bib necklace and earrings set in yellow gold with brilliant-cut diamonds, from the collection of Lyn Revson, wife of Revlon founder Charles Revson, is a vivid example. Its coloured stones are cabochon cut, a smooth, bulbous polish that exploits the stone’s illusions of liquidity. Ultimately cabochons appear like drops of rain or lickable drips of honey.
“Cabochons’ polished surface attracts the external light so you can see through the stone,” says Boscaini. “A typical rose cut or diamond cut with many different facets reflects the light so you have sparkle, but with this you look (internally); you see the material of the stone; every imperfection.”
Whether the Bulgari brothers were aware or not, their exuberant, uniquely Italianate adornments also fit like jigsaw into a cultural schism that was redefining post-war femininity.
Fragility and helplessness were being replaced as desirable attributes, by strength, sensuality and a certain jouie de vivre, paving the way for the first waves of women’s liberation in the 1960s.
French jewellery styles had dominated for decades, but they weren’t responding to this new mood. “French jewellery had a lighter elegance,” explains Amanda Dunsmore, “Whereas Bulgari had a really Roman robustness to it; a very strong aesthetic that hit you between the eyes.”
Women gravitated to Bulgari’s fat, tromino cocktail rings, serpenti bangles and watches, and high jewels – necklaces, bracelets, earrings and rings – set with remarkably masculine Roman and Greek coins. All became iconic Bulgari styles.
Lucia Boscaini says the company’s synergy with that evolving ideal of womanly beauty unleashed in the 1960s, hasn’t changed even today: “Bulgari jewels are for a woman with a strong personality,” she says. “They have a big volume of colours and a woman who likes this style is a woman in control; a woman that really knows what she wants and doesn’t look for approval from other people.”
A woman who would choose a glittering serpent bracelet watch to twist up her arm, for example, chimes more truly with Bulgari than one who might choose a pretty, Parisian trinket.
Elizabeth Taylor was so fond of her Bulgari serpenti watch – a spring-loaded segmented yellow gold tubogas coil bangle with timepiece concealed in the creature’s diamond crusted head – she wore it constantly on the Cleopatra set and seeded a trend eventually endorsed by US Vogue editor, Diana Vreeland.
During Bulgari’s La Dolce Vita years, Taylor’s oscillating fragility and strength, effectively straddled both old and new ideals of feminine beauty, ensuring her almost universal appeal. “She is the quintessence of youthful femininity, of womanliness and strength,” said Hollywood producer Walter Wanger after casting her in Cleopatra
Even Taylor’s tantrums, reported ad nauseum in gossip columns, only fuelled her allure: “One thing I learned from Liz,’ her cuckolded husband, Eddie Fisher reportedly confided to one writer, “Was if you want something; yell and scream for it.”
Taylor’s raven hair, wide sensual mouth, Nefertiti eyes, waist small enough to be encircled by one man’s hands (so the saying went), womanly hips and eye-popping, torpedo-brassiered bust, were the perfect canvas for fabulous jewels. And she milked that.
“One of the biggest advantages to working on Cleopatra in Rome was Bulgaris,” Taylor wrote in her book My Love Affair with Jewelry (Thames and Hudson 2002). “I used to visit in the afternoons and we’d sit and swap stories…”
Taylor often slipped around to Bulgari’s back door to conceal secret trysts with Burton but the discretion was virtually useless. Such were the swarms of paparazzi, posed to snap her every move, one film executive noted: “They’re even in the trees…”.
Bulgari’s star customer was eventually accused of “erotic vagrancy” in an open letter published by Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Della Domenica” and accused by a US congresswoman of being so undesirable, she should be banned from re-entering the country.
At the time, the affable Bulgari brothers may have had quiet conniptions; “What will this scandal do to our brand?”
They need not have worried.
Italian Jewels – Bulgari style, at the National Gallery of Victoria until Jan 29, 2017. Free.