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What's in a legacy? Part I: Highlights & Historical Interpretations from 125 Years of Bulgari

Date: Mar 11, 2010,21:32 PM -  (view entire thread)

What's in a legacy?  Part I

Highlights & Historical Interpretations from 125 Years of Bulgari

By Ping Tsai

© March 2010


Bulgari boutique on Via dei Condotti in Rome, Italy - photo cortesy of Bulgari


For a company that's been around since the late 1800s and has annual sales in excess of a billion dollars, Bulgari isn't likely to face much doubt of its success on a global scale.  Whether you love their watches, adore their jewelry, are skeptical of their business decisions or simply couldn't care less for anything the mega company has to offer, Bulgari's continuance down the path of longevity cannot be denied.  In today's struggling luxury markets, where even the finest of brands may not survive on their own, longevity is rare, extolled and extremely sought after.  Simply put, it is success. 


When founder Sotirio Bulgari passed the company down to his sons, Constantino and Georgio and subsequent generations to come, he passed along with it a rich heritage of classic Greek and Roman jewelry techniques and design which the company has consistently looked back upon for inspiration.  Bulgari recognized the popular fascination with ancient Roman fashion and sense for aesthetic beauty.  This closely regarded attention to history has yielded highly crafted quality jewelry and watches and several design concepts, some of which are particularly significant in the evolution of Bulgari's style.  These concepts are important in illustrating the devotion to looks that are timeless by nature and could be as relevant today as they were more than a thousand years ago. 


1. Bright and vibrant colored, often smooth surfaced gemstones.  Bulgari was one of the first jewelers to use polished cabochon-cut stones (considered second-rate gems by more traditional jewelers) in a prominent way.  Inspired by ancient Roman art and jewelry, this created jewels with a great sense of bold and smooth volume and became one of Bulgari's most popular characteristics for decades to follow.

Bulgari Sapphire Cabochon Ring

Photo from

An example of a Roman gold ring from the IV c. A.D. that clearly resembles the Bulgari ring.  It has a round hoop consisting of two spirally twisted wires and a blue gemstone cabochon set in a round box-type shield.  The ring is over 1500 years old but its design is timeless and could be as relevant in today's day and age as it was in its ancient times.


In the 1960s, Bulgari used striking color combinations of different gemstones that were chosen (and combined) for their chromatic effect (as opposed to being chosen for their value). This was very unconventional at the time.  The designs were considered decisive with stylized forms and soft volumes.

Photo from

Bulgari necklace and matching earrings in yellow gold with turquoises, cabochon amethysts, cabochon emeralds and diamonds, 1965

Photo from
An example of a Roman gold and glass necklace from the II-III century A.D. that may have served as inspiration.  Composed of nine gold pendants with double-ribbed suspension loop decorated with twisted wire, blue glass cabochons set in collar with pinched edge; fourteen hollow, ribbed gold beads, soldered from two halves and terminated by strip-twisted wire collars; sixty-six spherical and globular blue glass beads.


2.  The Serpent motif.  The new Serpenti Collection of watches will be presented at Baselworld this year and is reflective of Bulgari's long standing use of the snake as a design theme.  In ancient Roman times, people often wore talismans for good luck or to ward off ill-fortune.  One of the most common ancient Roman symbols used in these talismans was the image of the coiled snake. It represented immortality and was particularly common in bracelets.  Some tomb sculptures show women with as many as seven such bracelets on each arm, which may have served as extra security for the afterlife.

Photo from

Photo from

Roman gold snake bracelets from the late fourth-second century BCE

Snake bracelet-watch in gold and polychrome enamel, 1965.  The flexible bracelet designed as a coiled snake, the scales decorated with white, black, green and turquoise enamel, the head with pear-shaped emerald eyes concealing a circular dial – Picture from Bulgari

Bulgari watch from the Serpenti Collection

For Bulgari's 125th anniversary in 2009, the company reinterpreted the snake theme in their new Serpenti Collection


3.  Ancient Roman coins.  Since jewelry was a reflection of wealth in ancient Roman times, it became well fitting to show it through the use of ancient Roman coins in its design.  Using coins in jewelry was not a Roman invention but their appearance in brooches, rings and necklaces became much more common in the Roman period.

Ancient Roman gold ring with portrait of emperor Marcus Aurelius (121 AD to 180 AD) – photo from


"Gemme nummarie" or coin jewelry is a concept that Bulgari has masterfully reinterpreted over the years incorporating actual ancient coins into their designs of necklaces, rings, earrings etc. in a very literal approach.

Two-colour gold tubogas and anci ent coin necklace, 1980 from


Perhaps in a much more liberal and figurative approach, the idea is most evident in their extensive use of the signature circular disc shape throughout all their products.

BVLGARI-BVLGARI pendant in 18kt yellow gold – m


4.  The BVLGARI logo.  In Roman type, simple and elegant, it personifies the true essence of classic Roman style and aura.

The classic Roman letterform upon which many serif fonts are based, including the one in the Bulgari logo, can be traced to an inscription carved in stone at the base of a monument erected by the Roman emperor Trajan in AD 106-113.

Spliced photograph of the inscription at the base of Trajan's Column in Rome, Italy – photo by Edward M. Catich from The Roman Inscription in Rome. Published by the Catfish Press, St. Ambrose College, Davenport, Iowa


Romans wrote only in uppercase or capital letters with beautifully proportioned straight lines, curves, and angles until quite late in their history. The lower case letters were a medieval invention and didn't show up until the 5th and 6th centuries, with a few examples dating a little earlier. Good examples of the fine style of Roman capital letters can be seen in the inscriptions carved with mallet and chisel into stone monuments such as Trajan's Column in Rome, Italy.


In addition, there was no "J" in ancient Latin and the "U" was seldom seen and usually follows a "V". The Romans wrote an "I" where we might write a "J" and pronounced it as a consonant with a "yuh" sound in these places. The "V" stood for our "U" and made a "W" sound where we might make the "V" sound reading the word in modern English.


The Bulgari logo, a design motif and stamp of identity on the 'BVLGARI BVLGARI' watch bezel as well as other products utilizes classic Roman lettering. However, Bulgari's version is modernized with spacing and letters that are slightly wider.

Bulgari Diagono Moonphases with BVLGARI-BVLGARI logo bezel


Through looking back from time to time, Bulgari has managed to propel itself forward and now in its fourth generation, achieve timeless continuity and success.  By creating pieces that adopt elements from the past and reinventing them in a modern way for the current time, they were illustrating graphically the co-existence of ancient and modern cultures and traditions which is a feature of all modern Italian culture.  By doing this all throughout their history, they've managed to establish consistency in an exciting and unpredictable fashion.  In the process, they've gained an ever growing understanding of their customer base.  In a competitive industry where remaining true to one's vision and in the same token ensuring survival seems nearly an insurmountable feat, Bulgari finds itself in "the zone" and finds itself doing just fine.



Next to follow What's in a legacy?  Part II:  A Pictorial History of Watches by Bulgari


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