The stately cream façade of Bulgari’s flagship store on Rome’s prestigious Via dei Condotti sits alongside equally eminent heritage brands; neighbours include Dior, Hermès and Cartier. Bulgari, however, is woven into the fabric of this charming part of Rome, a step away from the Spanish Steps, like no other brand. It’s this store that a young Elizabeth Taylor visited during a break from filming Cleopatra in 1963, sparking her life-long romance with fine jewellery – and with Bulgari in particular. Alongside its fantastical gemstones, seductive Serpenti bracelets and opulent Bzero1 rings, Bulgari has also carved out a niche in the world of watches, creating era-defining, impeccable timepieces that push the boundaries of horology, with each year proving more exciting than the last.
Jewellery and watches
‘When I imagine new products, I have to imagine something that works with Bulgari’s roots. It has to be about the evolution of Bulgari,’ says Fabrizio Buonamassa Stigliani, design director of the house’s watch division. ‘I imagine the pieces in a line-up, as products that could fit very well in our already established assortment of watches, at the right moment and the right price.’
It’s an ethos that respects Bulgari’s rich heritage yet allows for innovation and fresh ideas. This chapter in the company’s storied legacy only opened just under 40 years ago, in 1977. This makes Bulgari a relative newcomer to the haute horology world, where centuries of craft and expertise lend weight to the great Swiss names that dominate and where upstarts are viewed with a critical eye. But Bulgari’s secret was to invest in a Swiss production facility, in Neuchâtel near Geneva, and ensure that all of its movements and complications were made in keeping with Swiss watchmaking tradition. Its distinctive Italian flair and showmanship were thus blended carefully and seamlessly into the precise standards of Swiss watchmaking.
Great design, whatever the product
Ever since Sotirio Voulgaris founded Bulgari in 1884, launching a jewellery emporium which would go on to dominate the world of luxury, this Italian exuberance has been firmly embedded in the DNA of the house. But far from being pressured by the weight of Bulgari’s legacy, the house’s prestige actually allows Stigliani the freedom to make his own decisions. ‘Good design is about constraint and those constraints drive the aesthetic,’ he says. ‘I might be inspired by a beautiful engine or even by the Colosseum in Rome, but sometimes you cannot use those shapes to make a watch. So the inspiration has to be appropriate and it has to make sense.’
Make sense it does, if models such as the now iconic Octo, Diva and Serpenti watches are anything to go by. The latter was the brand’s first foray into horology, a jewelled watch first created in the 1940s that reflected the winding design of the house’s Serpenti jewellery. This predated Bulgari’s undertaking of horology as a serious enterprise, which could be said to have started with the Bulgari Bulgari. The model made its debut in 1977 and is notable for the elongated font on the dial and a discreet classicism; it remains the house’s best seller.
A thread of daring
And while an inherently traditional aesthetic has long been the calling card of Bulgari’s timepieces, a thread of daring innovation has also run through its offerings. The brand bought the Daniel Roth watch company in 2000. Daniel Roth, the eponymous watchmaker, is known for his complicated watches and fantastical tourbillons, and for Bulgari he has created dazzling timepieces with skeleton faces so that the exceptional inner workings are on dazzling display.
The future of Bulgari watches
The sense of horological exploration continues this year with experimentation in the realm of smartwatches. The Bulgari Diagono Magnesium concept watch, unveiled in spring 2015, is fitted with a near field communication chip which allows it to link with portable devices carrying the Bulgari Vault app, meaning activities generally carried out using a smartphone can be achieved through the watch instead. While the Diagono Magnesium is still under development at the moment, the inside word in watch circles is that it will arrive in 2016. Alongside Bulgari’s exacting and impeccable craftsmanship and design, pioneering 21st-century technology that Sotirio Voulgaris could never have envisioned when he launched the brand might soon come as standard.