Collecting guide: Bulgari jewellery

An introduction to the Roman jewellery house, including exalted designs such as the ‘Trombino’ ring, the ‘Giardinetto’ brooch and the ‘Serpenti’ bracelet-watch — illustrated with lots offered at Christie’s


Left: Bulgari tourmaline and diamond ‘Serpenti’ bracelet. Modified triangular-shaped rubellite tourmaline, round diamonds, and 18k rose gold. Size/Dimensions: resting inner circumference 15.0 cm (6 in). Estimate: $15,000-20,000. Right: Bulgari rose gold and diamond ‘Serpenti’ wristwatch. Quartz movement, round diamonds, black dial, and 18k rose gold. Size/Dimensions: resting inner circumference 15.2 cm (6 in). Estimate: $40,000-60,000. Both offered in Jewels Online on 11-21 March 2024 at Christie’s online

A brief history of Bulgari

Bulgari — or BVLGARI — was founded by Constantine Sotirios Voulgaris (1857-1932), which was Italianised to Sotirio Bulgari. He began his career as a jeweller at Epirus in Greece before leaving for Corfu in 1877. He moved on to Naples and finally, in 1881, to Rome. Three years later he opened a shop in Via Sistina, eventually relocating to the current flagship store in Via dei Condotti in 1905. The Bulgari signature is often spelt BVLGARI — with a V rather than a U — which is a reference to the classical Latin alphabet.

A Bulgari sapphire and diamond necklace. Size/dimensions: 46.5 cm. Sold for CHF907,200 on 10 May 2023 at Christie’s in Geneva

Bulgari expanded before the First World War, opening shops in San Remo, Sorrento and Naples. The emphasis, however, was always on Rome, where in the 1930s the firm became internationally famous. Bulgari created a diamond tiara for the 1930 wedding of Prince Umberto of Italy and Princess Marie José of Belgium, and counted the American magnates Robert Lehman and Frank Jay Gould among its many famous clients.

Jewellery production practically ceased during the Second World War but slowly recovered in the 1950s. By the following decade, Bulgari was making jewellery — bows, brooches and bold earrings — lavishly set with precious gemstones.

The 1930s and the Bulgari Trombino ring

The Trombino (‘little trumpet’) is one of Bulgari’s most successful and long-lasting designs. The first model appeared in the early 1930s and was instantly popular because it allowed the gemstone to stand proud. The shank of the Trombino ring was a broad band of pavé-set diamonds graduated to a horizontal line of baguette-cut diamonds.

One of the most famous Trombino rings was bought by Elizabeth Taylor in 1971. Consisting of a sugarloaf cabochon sapphire weighing more than 25 carats, it realised $866,500 when it was sold at Christie’s in 2011. Christie’s sells many examples of the Trombino ring in the £20,000-50,000 range.

Bulgari’s big breakthrough in the 1960s

Bulgari began to attract a truly international following during the 1960s. Sophia Loren was photographed wearing an important Bulgari diamond necklace at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival; Gina Lollobrigida wore the firm’s emerald and diamond jewellery at the premiere of The Sound of Music  in 1965; and Princess Salimah Aga Khan became a regular client — when her collection was sold by Christie’s in Geneva in 1995, it featured 18 lots by Bulgari.

A Bulgari diamond bangle. Size/dimensions: expandable bracelet with resting circumference of 16.0 cm. Sold for CHF428,400 on 10 May 2023 at Christie’s in Geneva

When she was filming Cleopatra  outside Rome in 1962, Elizabeth Taylor found Bulgari impossible to resist. One of the most famous jewels from the period was the magnificent emerald and diamond necklace that Richard Burton bought for Elizabeth Taylor as a wedding present in 1964 (above). It fetched $6,130,500 at Christie’s in 2011. Taylor’s matching earrings sold for $3,218,000 in the same sale.

Bulgari’s burst of colour and the Giardinetto brooch

In 1962 the Italian government organised an exhibition in Paris of 75 jewellers from Italy, marking the inauguration of the Italian Institute of Culture. Up until this point, Paris had reigned supreme in terms of design and manufacture, but Italian jewellers were now determined to introduce a new dimension to jewellery design.

A Bulgari multi-gem and diamond necklace. Size/dimensions: 47.0 cm. Sold for CHF189,000 on 12 May 2023 at Christie’s in Geneva

Bulgari led the way with the use of numerous colour combinations in bold pieces of statement jewellery. It focused less on the intrinsic value of the gems and more on the impact they created. Diamonds were used sparingly, partly to keep costs down, but also to allow coloured gemstones to take centre stage.

In the early 1960s, Bulgari created a series of ‘Giardinetto’ brooches, which involved the use of a wide range of colour combinations and gemstones, whether cabochon or calibré-cut. It was this explosion of colour that defined Bulgari for the period from 1955 to 1995, and it is these iconic designs that are keenly competed for at auction today. Such pieces also continue to offer guiding principles for Bulgari’s contemporary designs.

Bulgari’s Serpenti

In some cultures the serpent was a fertility symbol, and in others it represented strength, eternity and seductiveness. In ancient Crete, snakes were worshiped as guardians of birth and regeneration because of the way they shed their skin.

A Rare Bulgari suite of emerald, turquoise and diamond jewellery, comprising a snake necklace, a pair of earrings and a ring. Size/dimensions: necklace 106.2 cm; earrings 4.0 cm; US ring size 6. Sold for CHF1,033,200 on 10 May 2023 at Christie’s in Geneva

Bulgari produced some stylised coiled serpents in the late 1940s, but it was not until 15 years later that the technique was perfected. The secret lay in the use of a white gold or steel spring within the metal bands of the Tubogas coil, which gave the Bulgari Serpenti bracelet-watch tremendous flexibility.

The first models produced in the 1960s were nearly all made in yellow gold with diamond-set heads and tails. The Bulgari Serpenti bracelet-watch worn by Elizabeth Taylor during the shooting of Cleopatra  had a pavé-set diamond head with emerald eyes, which set the tone for numerous versions made in the years that followed.

A Bulgari coral and onyx ‘Serpenti’ bracelet-watch. Size/dimensions: case circa 10.0 mm; expandable bracelet with resting circumference of 12.0 cm. Sold for CHF 277,200 on 8 November 2022 at Christie’s in Geneva

Many Serpenti bracelets include a watch, which is concealed within the serpent’s head; the dial is revealed by raising a hinged cover. The movements for these watches are from leading manufacturers including Jaeger-LeCoultre, Vacheron Constantin and Audemars Piguet, while the dials come in many different shapes.

The craftsmanship of the colourful enamel examples is meticulous, with scales handmade from sheets of gold and attached to each other at the core.

Early pieces only wrap around the arm once or twice, but in later examples three or four coils are normal — and a design called ‘The Twist’ goes around the arm seven times. The Bulgari serpent tradition continues today with the ‘Head over Tail’ watch, introduced in 2015.

Bulgari in the 1980s: Monete jewellery

The ‘Monete’ jewellery range of coin-set necklaces, bracelets and earrings is instantly recognisable, and one of the few designs that has not been imitated by other manufacturers. It remains one of Bulgari’s most enduring and popular lines.

A Bulgari suite of pink opal, diamond and coin ‘Monete’ jewellery. Size/dimensions: necklace 76.0 cm; pendant 7.0 x 6.3 cm; bracelet 18.0 cm; earrings 2.2 cm; US ring size 6½. Sold for CHF239,400 on 12 May 2023 at Christie’s in Geneva

The idea of mounting coins in jewellery is not new — there are plenty of examples from ancient Rome, and the fashion continued into the Byzantine era. The Anglo-Saxons are also known to have mounted coins in jewels. The famous 19th-century Italian jewellers Castellani and Giuliano often incorporated Roman gold and silver coins into bracelets in what was termed the ‘neo-archaeological’ style.

In tribute to the firm’s Greek origins, Bulgari liked to use an Athenian tetradrachm — a silver coin equivalent to four drachmae — from around 420 BC, with the head of Athena on one side and an owl symbolising wisdom on the other, or a tetradrachm featuring the head of Alexander the Great.

Although Bulgari did encase a few coins in boxes during the late 1930s, it was not until the 1980s that the firm started producing a large number of coin-set necklaces, bracelets and occasionally earrings. Ancient Greek and Roman coins were popular, but so too were 18th- and 19th-century Italian coins, as well as lapis lazuli, cornelian and sardonyx cameos.

Bulgari Parentesi: modular, easy-to-wear jewellery

In the 1980s there was an appetite for easy-to-wear jewellery that was stylish and affordable. The Parentesi range — whose name means ‘brackets’ or ‘parenthesis’ — ticked all the right boxes: it was bold, distinctive, and could be as formal or informal as required.

The first Bulgari Parentesi jewellery was created in 1982. The original model consisted of three elements — one shaped as an hourglass, one formed as brackets, and another to fit into the cavity of the bracket. This modular jewellery could be adapted to different sizes simply by removing one or more elements.

In one popular design, the gold hourglass section is replaced with pavé-set diamonds. Other creations have included the ‘Alveare’ (beehive) in 1988 and ‘Nuvole’ (clouds) in 1998, as well as different versions of ‘Parentesi’ in 2006.

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