Collecting guide Bulgari jewellery

Collecting guide: Bulgari jewellery

Jewellery specialist Raymond Sancroft-Baker offers an in-depth introduction to the best Bulgari rings, bracelets, necklaces and watches, including exalted designs such as the Trombino ring, the Giardinetto brooch and the Serpenti bracelet-watch

A brief history of Bulgari

Bulgari — or BVLGARI — was founded by Constantine Sotirios Boulgaris (1859-1932), 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 Sistini, which was replaced by 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 Italian alphabet.

Bulgari expanded before the First World War with 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 early 1940s 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 (translated as ‘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.

An important ruby and diamond ‘Trombino’ ring, by Bulgari. Sold for CHF 823,500 on 17 May 2017 at Christie’s in Geneva

An important ruby and diamond ‘Trombino’ ring, by Bulgari. Sold for CHF 823,500 on 17 May 2017 at Christie’s in Geneva

A classic example of this iconic style of ring was the 14.38-carat Burmese ruby (pictured above) that was sold by Christie’s in Geneva for CHF 823,500 in 2017. One of the most famous Trombino rings was bought by Elizabeth Taylor in 1971. Pictured below, it consists of a sugarloaf cabochon sapphire that weighs more than 25 carats, and it realised $866,500 when it was sold at Christie’s in 2011. Christie’s sells many examples of this ring in the £20,000-50,000 range.

A Sapphire and Diamond ‘Trombino’ Ring, by Bulgari. Sold for $866,500 on 13 December 2011 at Christie’s in New York

A Sapphire and Diamond ‘Trombino’ Ring, by Bulgari. Sold for $866,500 on 13 December 2011 at Christie’s in New York

A sapphire and diamond ‘Trombino’ Ring, by Bulgari. Sold for £27,500 on 13 June 2017 at Christie’s in London

A sapphire and diamond ‘Trombino’ Ring, by Bulgari. Sold for £27,500 on 13 June 2017 at Christie’s in London

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.

An emerald and diamond necklace, by Bulgari. Sold for $6,130,500 on 13 December 2011 at Christie’s in New York

An emerald and diamond necklace, by Bulgari. Sold for $6,130,500 on 13 December 2011 at Christie’s in New York

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). When sold by Christie’s in 2011 it fetched $6,130,500. Taylor’s matching earrings from the same era were also of great quality, and sold for $3,218,000 (below, left).

A pair of emerald and diamond ear pendants, by Bulgari. Sold for $3,218,500 on 13 December 2011 at Christie’s in New York

A pair of emerald and diamond ear pendants, by Bulgari. Sold for $3,218,500 on 13 December 2011 at Christie’s in New York

An enamel and gold flag necklace, by Bulgari. Sold for $122,500 on 13 December 2011 at Christie’s in New York

An enamel and gold flag necklace, by Bulgari. Sold for $122,500 on 13 December 2011 at Christie’s in New York

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 respect of design and manufacture, but Italian jewellers were now determined to introduce a new dimension to jewellery design.

A diamond and multi-gem butterfly brooch, by Bulgari. Sold for $23,750 on 6 December 2017 at Christie’s in New York

A diamond and multi-gem butterfly brooch, by Bulgari. Sold for $23,750 on 6 December 2017 at Christie’s in New York

A tourmaline, emerald and diamond necklace, by Bulgari. Sold for $37,500 on 20 June 2017 at Christie’s in New York

A tourmaline, emerald and diamond necklace, by Bulgari. Sold for $37,500 on 20 June 2017 at Christie’s in New York

Bulgari led the way with the use of numerous colour combinations and 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.

A sapphire, emerald and diamond banglebrooch, by Bulgari. Sold for CHF 77,500 on 17 May 2017 at Christie’s in Geneva

A sapphire, emerald and diamond bangle/brooch, by Bulgari. Sold for CHF 77,500 on 17 May 2017 at Christie’s in Geneva

An amethyst, diamond and enamel pendant necklace, by Bulgari. Sold for $225,000 on 6 December 2017 at Christie’s in New York

An amethyst, diamond and enamel pendant necklace, by Bulgari. Sold for $225,000 on 6 December 2017 at Christie’s in New York

In the early 1960s, Bulgari created a series of ‘Giardinetto’ brooches, which allowed the firm to use 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 1955-1995, and it is these iconic designs that are keenly competed for at auction today. Such pieces also remain a guiding principle for Bulgari’s contemporary designs.

Bulgari Serpenti bracelet-watch

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 coral, onyx and diamond ‘Serpenti’ bracelet-watch, by Bulgari. Sold for CHF 377,000 on 10 November 2015 at Christie’s in Geneva

A coral, onyx and diamond ‘Serpenti’ bracelet-watch, by Bulgari. Sold for CHF 377,000 on 10 November 2015 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 white gold or steel spring within the metal bands of the Tubogas coil, which gave the Bulgari Serpenti bracelet-watch tremendous flexibility.

A fine and rare enamel and diamond snake wristwatch, by Bulgari. Sold for £662,500 on 4 June 2014 at Christie’s in London

A fine and rare enamel and diamond snake wristwatch, by Bulgari. Sold for £662,500 on 4 June 2014 at Christie’s in London

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 in Cleopatra  consists of a pavé-set diamond head with emerald eyes, which set the tone for numerous versions that were made in the years that followed.

A pair of rare ruby, sapphire and diamond ‘Serpenti’ bracelet-watches, by Bulgari. Sold for CHF 367,500 on 17 May 2017 at Christie’s in Geneva

A pair of rare ruby, sapphire and diamond ‘Serpenti’ bracelet-watches, by Bulgari. Sold for CHF 367,500 on 17 May 2017 at Christie’s in Geneva

Many Serpenti bracelets included a watch concealed within the serpent’s head. The dial is revealed from beneath a hinged cover. The movements for these watches came from leading watch manufacturers, including Jaeger-LeCoultre, Vacheron Constantin or Audemars Piguet, while the dials came in many different shapes.

The colourful enamel examples are meticulously crafted, with scales handmade from sheets of gold before being attached to each other at the core.

A lapis lazuli, turquoise and diamond ‘Serpenti’ bracelet-watch, by Bulgari. Sold for CHF 355,500 on 15 November 2016 at Christie’s in Geneva

A lapis lazuli, turquoise and diamond ‘Serpenti’ bracelet-watch, by Bulgari. Sold for CHF 355,500 on 15 November 2016 at Christie’s in Geneva

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

Bulgari in the 1980s: Moneta jewellery

The ‘Moneta’ 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 ‘Gemme Nummarie’ longchain necklace, by Bulgari. Sold for £22,500 on 29 November 2017 at Christie’s in London

A ‘Gemme Nummarie’ longchain necklace, by Bulgari. Sold for £22,500 on 29 November 2017 at Christie’s in London

The idea of mounting coins in jewellery is not new — there are plenty of examples from ancient Rome of a fashion that continued into the Byzantine era. Even the Anglo-Saxons are 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.

A pair of diamond and coin earrings, by Bulgari. Sold for €3,380 on 26 May 2010 at Christie’s in Milan

A pair of diamond and coin earrings, by Bulgari. Sold for €3,380 on 26 May 2010 at Christie’s in Milan

A coin and gold bangle bracelet, by Bulgari. Sold for $20,000 on 26 April 2017 at Christie’s in New York

A coin and gold bangle bracelet, by Bulgari. Sold for $20,000 on 26 April 2017 at Christie’s in New York

In tribute to the firm’s Greek origins, Bulgari liked to use an Athenian tetradrachm — a silver coin equivalent to four drachmae — of circa 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 (336-323 BC).

A diamond and coin brooch, by Bulgari. Sold for $25,000 on 26 April 2017 at Christie’s in New York

A diamond and coin brooch, by Bulgari. Sold for $25,000 on 26 April 2017 at Christie’s in New York

A bi-coloured gold, diamond and coin necklace, by Bulgari. Sold for $40,000 on 7 December 2016 at Christie’s in New York

A bi-coloured gold, diamond and coin necklace, by Bulgari. Sold for $40,000 on 7 December 2016 at Christie’s in New York

While 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, and 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 — translated as ‘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.

A gem-set ‘Parentesi’ necklace and a pair of gem-set earrings, by Bulgari. Sold for £6,875 on 16 April 2013 at Christie’s in London, South Kensington

A gem-set ‘Parentesi’ necklace and a pair of gem-set earrings, by Bulgari. Sold for £6,875 on 16 April 2013 at Christie’s in London, South Kensington

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