Rome, 1905: the still-existent Bulgari flagship store opens on Via Condotti. Through the company’s now more than 125 years, there has always been a clear effort to evolve, to renew, to invigorate. Perhaps the most important representation of this is immediately after the Second World War. Constantino and Giorgio, sons of founder Sotirio Bulgari, decided to break with the traditions of classical French goldsmithing and design. They embraced instead the Italian Renaissance, Greco-Roman design, and 19th century Roman goldsmithing. The result was what became known worldwide as the Bulgari style, a bit bold, and emphasizing precious stones beyond the world of diamonds.
Forays into textiles, watchmaking, leather goods, and even luxury hotels. International success flowed in, and this was in no small part due to the adulation bestowed on the company by Hollywood, none other than Elizabeth Taylor at the vanguard.
Over the years, Bulgari’s archivists have made a concerted effort to re-acquire key pieces of jewellery, as they came available. Enter the de Young Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco. The idea of mounting a Bulgari exhibition, focusing on the grand decades of 1950 through 1990, during which the brand achieved new heights of fame and desirability, and had a distinctive creative explosion, took hold, and, in September 2013, it became a reality. Until February 17, 2014, you can visit two salons in the de Young, and behold a truly dazzling, spectacular array of Bulgari jewellery masterworks. It is called “The Art of Bulgari: La Dolce Vita and Beyond, 1950-1990”.
Over 150 items are on display, plus various sketches and other documents from the Bulgari archives. Among the too-many-to-adequately list: a Playing Card brooch (1975), gold with Mother of Pearl, onyx, and diamonds; bib necklace (1965), gold with amethyst, turquoise, emeralds, and diamonds; a “Tremblant” brooch (1962), with fancy yellow diamonds and diamonds; Sautoir (1959), platinum with sapphires and diamonds, formerly part of Elizabeth Taylor’s personal collection. Many of the Taylor collection pieces are in this exhibition in fact.
The overall effect, wandering through the salons, taking in the breadth of design flourishes, the stunning magnitude of so many precious and semi-precious stones in such grand settings, is that of entering a different world, not unlike, say, how Nick Carraway may have felt observing the splendours of Gatsby. But one thing is abundantly clear. The Bulgari house style, not really possible to encapsulate, encompasses a bold, almost extravagant understanding of the art of jewellery making. It is full of large stones, many colours, a vivid palate in which gold and diamonds are only a small part of the proceedings. If you find yourself in San Francisco, this exhibition is well worth the visit.