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March 30, 2010

Bulgari Arrives

On the eve of reopening its Fifth Avenue store, Bulgari is once again a name to be reckoned with. Lee Marshall reports on how the family pulled it off.

Picture madame, draped elegantly across a low leather armchair in the lounge of the Bulgari Hotel in Milan, her silk Bulgari scarf tied casually around a statuesque neck dabbed with some teasing Bulgari scent—BLV, perhaps, which she has seen advertised as “a cold yet passionate fragrance dedicated to the unexpected woman.” She lifts her Bulgari Parentesi shades up for a second to check the time on her BVLGARI-BVLGARI watch—not the chunky men’s model favored by Bill Gates but a striking Tubogas stainless-steel number that snakes around her wrist in three springy coils. There’s an hour or so left until her Bulgari spa treatment, just enough time to pop across to the Bulgari store in Via Montenapoleone and treat herself to that amethyst-encrusted bracelet she saw in the hotel’s discreet vitrine earlier that afternoon.

In the world of luxury brands, diversification has become the corporate mantra. But Bulgari has managed the trick more ably, and gradually, than most. Before 1977, when watches were added to the company’s roster, the Madame Bulgari evoked here would have had to make do with just jewelry. She got to splash the perfume around in 1993, throw on the scarf in ‘96, and don those sunglasses in ‘98. It wasn’t till 2004 that she could check into the Bulgari Hotel in Milan, and she had to wait for the autumn of 2006 to visit the Bulgari Resort Bali, an all-villa cliffside retreat.

Why the caution? Maybe it’s because the Italian company has been a family business since 1884—and families are not prone to snap decisions. “We thought about hotels for fifteen years before we made the leap,” says vice chairman Nicola Bulgari. In a seersucker jacket, Signor Nicola is seated at his desk in the head office in Rome, which occupies a neat thirties palazzo on the Tiber River, not far from Richard Meier’s new Ara Pacis Museum. It’s difficult to pin him down to a single subject: A man of restless enthusiasms, Nicola jumps from one topic to the next, holding forth on his collection of vintage American cars—"European models are just too damn obvious,” he says—before segueing into his love of antique silverware ("I’m the only one in the company who still cares about it") and his plans to bring finely crafted enamel objets back to the Bulgari catalogue. Nonetheless, he is adamant that among the firm’s growing array of products, jewelry remains number one.

His eyes light up when he begins talking about a new demantoid mine in Africa, and when I step through the security gates into the gem room, I start to get the bug myself. Thirty sapphire and diamond baguettes are laid out on a jeweler’s tablet, embedded in a soft cream-colored wax. There’s something touching about the sight: On display like this, the stones seem naked, unprotected. The chief gem buyer shifts one of these Madagascar diamonds a fraction of an inch, then looks again at the half-finished drop necklace being assembled. Before I leave she unwraps a plain blue paper package to reveal a stunning 156-carat marquise-cut diamond. She has put on her best professional face, but clearly she loves getting paid to play with diamonds, rubies, sapphires, and emeralds all day.

Bulgari gems—set in earrings, bracelets, necklaces, rings, and brooches—have that effect on women. Richard Burton gave Elizabeth Taylor dozens of them, beginning with an emerald and sapphire ring in 1963 on the set of Cleopatra. “I introduced her to beer,” the Welsh actor once said, “and she introduced me to Bulgari.” In a January 2003 interview, Taylor recalled that whenever Burton showed up with a package from the Via Condotti jewelers, “I would jump on top of him and practically make love to him in Bulgari.” /p>

Taylor’s reaction is molto Bulgari: The pieces turned out by this Roman firm have always had an earthier, brasher, more carnal image than those of its rivals. You wouldn’t turn up for an orgy in Cartier or Tiffany; you would wear nothing but vintage Bulgari from the sixties or seventies—perhaps a sautoir fit for a maharaja, its chunky chain links bulging with cabochon rubies and amethysts, its pendant framing a huge 127-carat carved emerald. Or, you might slip on the 1967 bib studded with cabochon rubies, emeralds, sapphires, and brilliant-cut diamonds, which Bulgari lent to Keira Knightley for the Oscars in 2006 (her modeling contract with the British royal jeweler Asprey was being renegotiated at the time).

The necklace is a perfect example of the two main Bulgari trademarks: color and curve. With striking combinations of red, blue, and green or turquoise, green and purple, the firm’s sixties creations were among the first jewels to kick the conservative color rule—diamonds with emeralds, diamonds and sapphires, diamonds with rubies—that once dominated jewelry design. Bulgari necklaces bulged, accentuating the curves of the body, while those of other designers often treated the chest as a sort of flat display table.

In Bvlgari, a 1996 history of the company, Leonardo Arte explains that its penchant for rounded forms can be thought of as a reference to that icon of Roman architecture, the dome or cupola: “Bulgari designs…project above their collet settings…like cupolas above their drums.” It was Bulgari that rescued the rounded, smooth cabochon from historical obscurity in the late sixties. The cut played against the brightness of the more commonly used multifaceted shape; it was like saying, Yeah, it’s a big stone, so what? Which of course made its effect, for those in the know, even more theatrical.

The Knightley necklace is part of Bulgari’s growing vintage collection—housed in the Via Condotti flagship store in Rome—which currently consists of hundreds of historically significant, one-off designs. Most have been slowly reacquired over the last decade at auctions or from private collectors and the heirs of former clients. Nicola takes a personal interest in the archive. “It’s a bit traumatic to spend all that money buying back something you once sold,” he says, “but I’m getting used to it.” One day these vintage jewels may be put on display in a permanent Bulgari museum in Rome; in the meantime, says Nicola, “we exhibit them on beautiful necks.” Bulgari’s dynamic CEO, Francesco Trapani, appreciates this collection from a more businesslike point of view. “It helps us to create depth for the company,” he explains. “In territories that do not know our history, people think we’ve come out of nowhere.” /p>

Sotirios Boulgaris, the founding father of what would become a luxury empire, was born in 1857 in a small village in northwestern Greece, not far from the Albanian border. His parents had 11 children, but Sotirios was the only one to survive. His father, Georgis, was a skilled silversmith, and Sotirios learned the trade, helping craft the Byzantine-style buckles, cartridge belts, and sword sheaths that were popular with the local Ottoman dignitaries. When the war-torn Balkans became too dangerous, father and son moved to Corfu. Business improved on the island, but young Sotirios was restless, so he sailed for Italy in 1880, establishing himself first in Naples and then in Rome, where in 1884 he set up his first shop, at 85 Via Sistina.

The move to 10 Via Condotti, where the flagship still stands, came in 1905. A canny businessman, Sotirios had by this time built up a network of subsidiaries—some of them seasonal, like the St. Moritz branch—and Italianized his name to Sotirio Bulgari. The distinctive Roman “V” that replaces the “U” in the logo first appeared in 1933, a year after Soti- rio’s death, when the Via Condotti store was redesigned by his sons, Giorgio and Costantino. Discreet, classical-tinged luxury was the keynote of this conversion, with African green marble cornices framing the display windows and Pompeii-style stuccowork inside.

Giorgio’s sons, Nicola and Paolo, are still running the company, as vice chairman and chairman, respectively; the younger generation is represented by their nephew, Francesco Trapani (son of Lia Bulgari, Sotirio’s granddaughter). Giorgio’s third son, Gianni, left the company in 1987, a year after Francesco’s arrival, apparently under acrimonious circumstances. Asked whether he still maintains contact with Gianni—who has just launched his own jewelry line called Enigma—Nicola booms, “I’m the only one who keeps in touch with him. He wanted to go his own way. That’s all I want to say.” /p>

A few days before my visit, Nicola had taken six of his top creative managers to Dresden, Germany, to see the historic collection of luxury objects accumulated by the princes of Saxony between the 16th and 18th centuries, including the 41-carat Green Diamond. “It’s something we do quite often,” he explains. “Ideas can come from anywhere, and a company such as this one needs to renew itself constantly.” Though jewelry remains Bulgari’s core business, the high-end pieces turned out by the skilled artisans at the jewelry workshop on the western fringe of Rome represent only a small part of Bulgari’s annual sales. Hardly surprising when you consider that even the smallest bracelet requires 150 hours to complete, while a complex, million-dollar necklace can take a single craftsman up to three months. (Nicola regularly sends little tokens of his appreciation to the people who work in the shop, such as ciambelle, sweet aniseed cookies, and Vin Santo dessert wine from the Bulgari estate in Tuscany.) Every year the house expects to sell a maximum of 500 pieces in the $70,000-plus range, and only 29 of its 200 stores carry the high jewelry collection.

As CEO, Francesco makes no attempt to disguise his ambition to make Bulgari “the most powerful brand in the luxury arena.” The recently revamped New York store is a case in point. It’s in the same location, on the corner of 57th Street and Fifth Avenue, but the windows installed back in 1989 have been replaced with a 21-foot-high glass façade. Behind the glass, 11 vitrines hold pieces from the vintage collection.

Another Francesco initiative is the opening of accessory-only boutiques, such as the refurbished Via della Spiga outpost in Milan. Bulgari recently debuted a fall-winter 2007 collection of accessories that included python totes and silk ties. The corporate expansion has been backed up by an aggressive media push. Sponsoring British novelist Fay Weldon to prominently feature Bulgari jewelry in her 2000 novel titled, appropriately enough, The Bulgari Connection, certainly generated publicity for the brand, not all of it positive. But the choice of using Kate Moss for its Pour Femme perfume relaunch last autumn at the height of her scandale proved that Bulgari knows how to ride a media wave in a way that is both knowing and stylish. While watches, scents, scarves, and handbags are hardly unusual spin-offs for a jewelry firm, Bulgari’s move into the hotel business at the beginning of the new millennium, in partnership with the Marriott Group, might seem a less obvious choice. “It was the logical next step,” insists Francesco, who had been following the Aman and Ian Schrager properties for years. “We have a much keener sense of the luxury world today than most hoteliers.” An artist friend tipped off Francesco about a former convent for sale on a private, gated street just around the corner from Via Montenapoleone, Milan’s main fashion strip. The property also had an extensive garden, a rarity in this high-density city. Opened in 2004, the first Bulgari Hotel feels like a privileged, semirural enclave in the heart of urbane Milan. Antonio Citterio’s muted, masculine design scheme helps, as does the service—informal without being overfamiliar—and the downstairs spa and pool is a well-gauged combination of Milanese style and pure indulgence. But without its location, the Bulgari would be just another design hotel.

The brand’s second location, the Bulgari Resort Bali, posed an even greater challenge. How to do a contemporary Italian hotel on the islands of the South Seas? Find a remote clifftop site at the southern tip of the Jimbaran Peninsula, a safe distance from the increasingly touristy Jimbaran beach, where the Four Seasons and the Ritz-Carlton resorts are situated. Then use local materials—say, volcanic stones and rich exotic woods—and local artists (among them a Balinese princess who weaves textiles with botanical motifs) in the service of Citterio’s unmistakably contemporary Italian design.

Once again, though, as in Milan, where affable general manager Attilio Marro strikes a perfect balance between friendly and attentive service, it’s the people on staff that make the place. Bulgari poached experienced general manager Robert Lagerwey from the Ritz-Carlton Millennia Singapore and snagged chef Andrew Skinner from the Oberoi Mauritius to oversee the resort’s two restaurants.

Francesco says the Bulgari Hotel portfolio will grow slowly and consist of no more than six or seven urban outposts in key cities, plus a couple of resorts. He is a man who knows what he wants and isn’t afraid to state it, even at the risk of angering his uncles. When I ask him about his strategy in those early years when he was drafted into the family business as a fresh-faced economics graduate, he smiles and says, “I wanted to go beyond the company as a toy.” /p>

With Bulgari marching on toward world domination, he seems to have succeeded.

Lee Marshall wrote about the Sersale family and their Le Sirenuse hotel on the Amalfi Coast in the March/april issue.

Vintage Bulgari

The company has made a concerted effort to create an archive and keep it on display in the Via Condotti boutique. The pieces, like this ca. 1967–68 necklace, frequently show up on the red carpet. Alas, the collection is not for sale. But auction houses and private dealers are seeing an increased interest in the bold, brash Bulgari style. Currently in stock at private dealer Siegelson: a turquoise and diamond suite from 1960 and a coral and onyx necklace ca. 1970 (prices upon request; 800-223-6686). At Chartreuse there’s a coral and black chain link and a colored cabochon necklace from the ‘70s (from $17,000; 212-966-4190). And Fred Leighton has a coin necklace ca. 1980 ($8,500), a ‘60s ruby and diamond choker ($300,000), and ‘80s coin cuff links ($4,000; 212-288-1872).

The Face of Bulgari

No other piece of jewelry says Bulgari quite like the coin. It began in the late sixties when Nicola Bulgari took ancient Greek and Roman coins from his collection (his godfather gave him one for every wedding anniversary) and set them in bracelets, necklaces, rings, and brooches. They usually featured portraits of great leaders of antiquity, generally in profile. For Bulgari, the figures brought together the two cultures that formed the company: the native Greece of founder Sotirios Boulgaris and Italy, where he opened a shop in 1884, laying down the foundations for a family empire. This necklace in yellow and white gold with silver coins was designed in 1973.