Bulgari has been setting the pace for Italian jewelry styles for over a century, drawing inspiration from the timeless beauty of Greek and Roman art, while lending a contemporary edge to the innovative pieces. The Bulagri family is descended from an Ancient family of Greek silversmiths from a small village called Epirus. In 1879 founder Sotirio Boulgaris immigrated to Italy and began to sell original silver ornaments in the streets of Rome. Five years later, after successfully displaying his objects in a corner window of a Greek merchant’s shop, he was able to open his first shop in via Sistina, Rome. The variety store sold silver belts, buckles, bracelets, buttons, tableware, and antiques. By the turn of the century, the enterprising businessman had established outlets in St. Moritz, San Remo, Naples, Bellagio, and Sorrento. At this time Sotirio Romanized the family name, which was changed to the present “Bulgari.”
In 1905, he sold off his chain shops to concentrate on a single jewelry and silver business. He and his sons Costantino and Giorgio opened a store on Via dei Condotti 10. The store, which remains the Bulgari headquarters today, offered an upscale selection of goods from embossed and engraved silver serving pieces to gold and silver jewelry. Gradually the Bulgari brand cultivated a cosmopolitan air, and the shift to pricier bejeweled pieces began.
After Sotirio died in 1932, his sons undertook an extravagant remodeling of both the interior and the exterior of the Via Condotti store and formally changed the company logo to "BVLGARI," an application of the traditional Roman alphabet. The L2 million project took two years and featured the pink and beige Italian marble that would become the worldwide hallmark of the firm's retail outlets. Giorgio's global gem-sourcing travels exposed him to the latest fashions in the then-Paris-based jewelry industry, while Costantino's penchant for collecting ancient silver wares would later be a source of inspiration for the company's adaptation of classical themes.
Having latched onto style trends emanating from Paris, Bulgari continued to follow the lead of what was then the world's jewelry capital throughout the first half of the century. In the 1920s, Bulgari embraced Art Deco themes. In the 1930s, the company concentrated on diamonds set in platinum. Wartime restrictions and a general climate of austerity was reflected in a dearth of jewelry designs of the 1940s. When the company did produce a piece, it often featured yellow gold and few or no precious jewels. Though highly regarded for their craftsmanship, the Bulgari brothers continued to follow, rather than set, trends after World War II. In the prosperous years of the immediate postwar era, the jewelry house produced lavish settings of diamonds, emeralds, sapphires, and rubies in platinum. Floral motifs, many featuring en tremblant settings that moved with the wearer, were especially popular during this period.
The store's marble-decked façade would be the backdrop of many a paparazzi photo in the postwar era, as celebrities from around the world were drawn to the Bulgari shop. The expanding clientele, which prior to the 1960s included Italian nobility; South American political figure Evita Peron; American businessmen like Nelson Rockefeller and Woolworth's founder Samuel Henry Kress; and U.S. Ambassador to Italy Clare Boothe Luce, reflected Bulgari's growing stature among the world's high-class jewelry houses.
In the 1960s, Italian jewelers in general and the Bulgari brothers in particular began to break away from France's fashion dictates to establish their own recognizable styles. The Bulgari mode of design that emerged over the ensuing decade departed from the French in several respects. In place of large, faceted diamond centerpieces, Bulgari began to substitute colored gemstones in a smooth, domed cut known in the industry as "cabochon." Diamonds--often brilliant cut and/or pavé set--became the supporting actors in these color plays. When choosing its stones, the jewelry house shunned the traditional emerald-ruby-sapphire trio, and instead began to choose gemstones based more on their artistic contribution to the piece than their financial contribution. Smooth outlines and highly stylized forms in yellow gold would complete the Bulgari look. In their 1990 essay on the firm for The Master Jewelers, Charles M. Newton and Omar Torres aptly noted that "The symmetry and proportions of Bulgari products are based more upon art and architecture than on nature--a factor which distinguishes the Bulgari jewel from that of the French masters."
The family's third generation, represented by Giorgio's three sons Paolo, Gianni, and Nicola, took the helm in 1967. Eldest son Gianni earned a law degree and favored a playboy lifestyle--complete with a stint as a racecar driver--but was soon drawn into the family business and served as chief executive into the early 1980s. Paolo, the artist of the trio, has been called "one of the world's foremost jewelers." The Master Jewelers noted that "One of his greatest talents is his ability to translate his understanding of his family's traditions into recognizably Bulgari jewels while continually moving forward with new and exciting forms and ideas." Though Nicola, the youngest, has been characterized as the businessman of the family, he was also responsible for an important design contribution. An avid collector of ancient coins, in the late 1960s he revived their use in jewelry, dubbing them Gemme Nummarie, or "Coin Gems." Bulgari's most popular treatment featured coins set in heavy, open-linked, yellow gold chains, but the firm also produced rings, earrings, bracelets, and even tableware and gift items on this theme. The juxtaposition of patinated coins and highly polished precious metals would become a Bulgari hallmark.
The brothers established their first international outlet in 1970 in New York's Pierre Hotel on Fifth Avenue. By the end of the decade, they had launched locations in Geneva, Monte Carlo, and even Paris. Bulgari's jewelry designs of this decade were strongly influenced by the exhibitions of the treasures of Tutankhamen's ancient Egyptian treasures. Indian motifs, particularly the "boteh" (leaf), were also prevalent in the 1970s. The company's purchase of a collection of carved Indian jewels, which were remounted to create new treasures, was a key to this in-house trend.
Though the company had made and sold pocket, lapel, and wrist watches throughout its history, Bulgari did not introduce a major collection of timepieces until the late 1970s. The simple lines of the "BVLGARI-BVLGARI" wristwatch, which featured a black face encircled by a gold band, would become the company's most-recognized and highest-selling watch. Another important design was Bulgari's snake watch, which evolved from the jewel-encrusted, Art Deco snake of the 1920s (its hinged head concealed a watch face), into a highly stylized coil bracelet set with an exposed face.
The 1970s were a period of great success for the company, a time when Bulgari enhanced its ranking among the world's greatest jewelers through innovative designs. The firm's patronage grew accordingly, expanding to include celebrities like Sophia Loren, Audrey Hepburn, Kirk Douglas, and perhaps the house's best-known client, Elizabeth Taylor. Royalty from around the world shopped at the company's showcases. Perhaps most tellingly, lesser jewelers began to copy Bulgari designs.
The company remains under Bulgari family ownership today and has branched out into other endeavors such as a perfume and fine Italian silk scarves. Quality and excellence continue to be the basis of the Bulgari brand.