Great Snakes

The past few years have seen Bulgari win accolades for technical watchmaking brilliance with its Octo Finissimo Tourbillon and Minute Repeater but, with a past steeped in aesthetic innovation, glamour and celebrity, the archives are still a major source of inspiration. And, looking to secure the future by respecting the past, CEO Jean-Christophe Babin has introduced the job of Heritage Director, appointing economist – and Bulgari’s previous Director of Marketing – Lucia Boscaini to lead a team of archivists in acquiring, recording and preserving items of historical significance to the company and its past.

When it comes to watches, two of Boscaini’s most colourful charges within the historical collection are inextricably entwined: the precious, reptilious Tubogas/Serpenti watches and the jewels of Hollywood screen siren Elizabeth Taylor. Already a loyal customer, Taylor’s relationship with the Bulgari brothers Nicola, Paolo and Gianni, was cemented in the early-1960s during her two-year stay in Rome for the filming of Cleopatra. Known as having a penchant for wearing her own jewellery in movies – most notably in 1968’s Boom – she was famously photographed on the set of Cleopatra wearing her 1960s Serpenti watch and, during this time, she also became a friend and informal student of the house, spending time in the Via dei Condotti store learning about stones and their setting from Gianni.


A fabled Taylor story is that as a newborn her eyes remained closed for a week, opening for the first time when a ray of light was refracted on to her face from her mother’s engagement ring. Hence the first thing she ever saw was a diamond, beginning her lifelong love of stones. And, aware of this love, during her time in Rome both her then-husband Eddie Fisher and her lover Richard Burton courted her with Bulgari jewels. Fisher even bought her an emerald-and-diamond brooch in a vain attempt to save the marriage. When they separated, he asked for the brooch to be returned, but Taylor chose to pay for it instead, reportedly saying that she could live without Fisher but not without the jewel. The brooch was eventually purchased by Boscaini’s team, and returned to its spiritual home in the Bulgari archives.

Via dei Condotti’s famous visitors during this time were mainly thanks to Rome’s burgeoning Cinecittà studios, founded by Mussolini in 1937, and the personal memoirs of Bulgari Chairman Paolo Bulgari recall Hollywood clients including Rita Hayworth, Anita Ekberg, Audrey Hepburn and John Wayne, plus socialites the likes of Lauren Hutton and Peggy Guggenheim. They all brought with them the flash mob of paparazzi that is enshrined in our collective memory thanks to the celluloid images of Federico Fellini. But despite its celebrity army, Bulgari’s name will be forever linked to Taylor, not only because of her personal and emotional investment in the brand and the city of Rome, but also because of her position in one of the greatest love stories ever played out: that between Taylor and Burton.

And CEO Babin sees another, deeper connection: “Bulgari stands for Roma but in turn Roma stands for a unique lifestyle. Liz Taylor was not only a great talent; she was a symbol of La Dolce Vita. She is everything that luxury should be. She epitomises Italian luxury in the same way that Bulgari does – sophistication, enjoyment and a cool lifestyle. She embodies all of that.”

As well as the most well-known of her Bulgari jewels, Taylor also owned four Serpenti watches. Her first was a golden snake with two coils from the 1960s and is the one she wore on the Cleopatra set,

making it perhaps the most desirable and certainly the most visible. She also had two further pieces from the 1960s and 1970s, plus a contemporary version from 2009 in gold and pave diamonds with a triangular-shaped face, demonstrating her enduring fascination with the model for more than 50 years.

By any stretch

The origins of what we now know as the Serpenti begin in the late-1940s – although the exact date is not known, a sketch from 1949 suggests that the first example must have been made in 1948. According to Boscaini, the first watch was inspired by the stretchy metal used for gas pipes, which led to its very literal name: Tubogas. “A Mr Lombardi, who had worked as a Bulgari sales representative in Russia brought the idea to the company,” she says. “He was not an artisan or designer, but at that time companies were very different and every good idea was welcomed, no matter where it came from. That is one reason why Bulgari is so strong and rich – innovation is welcomed from everyone.”

In the late-1940s, Italy was still feeling the effects of the Second World War, people were looking forward to a promising future and the mood aesthetically was for novelties but ones that were not frivolous. The style of the Tubogas was perfect and it was an immediate success. Of the moment, the style was minimal and sober. Made of plain, hollow yellow gold, there were no gemstones and, as the piece was a watch not a jewel, it was practical and affordable. It was innovative and modern and was interpreted in different ways, although, as Boscaini points out, it was far from a collection. “The concept did not exist at that time,” she says. “Each piece was different in size and dial shape. Everything was hand-made, as there was no mass-production then. We could replicate successful pieces but, although they were similar, each one was unique.”

Not yet a watch manufacturer, the early Tubogas and Serpenti watches were powered by movements supplied by the usual suspects – Piaget, Jaeger-LeCoultre and Vacheron Constantin, and as such were often double-branded. Although no one knows exactly how many examples were produced, sketches do exist for almost 1,000 pieces. Taking into account that not all would have made it through the full production process, Boscaini estimates that there are probably in the region of 500 out there somewhere.

The mid-1950s saw a change in style when the Tubogas metamorphosed into the less abstract Serpenti. But, en route to becoming the snake that we know today with recognisable serpent head, the watch first became a stylised dragon. Although several sketches have been found, only two examples are known to exist, the body of each being made of small balls of gold – one with diamonds replacing some of the golden orbs.

This immortal coil

For some, the snake may seem a bizarre choice of symbol for a luxury maison to adopt, but for Bulgari it is an obvious crowd pleaser. “It is a global reference dating back to the 5th century BC,” says Boscaini. “It has inspired artists and is the source of legends all over the world. In the majority of cultures, the snake is a positive symbol representing fertility and regeneration; by shedding his skin he shows us that life is always ongoing and there is always a future. The animal is also present in nature everywhere, excluding the two Poles, so it is relevant to cultures around the world. In this way it is unique.”

CEO Babin agrees: “The snake is key to Bulgari. It is a universal sign and we execute it as a jewel. We were not the first to do this but, as a contemporary jeweller, we have consistently redesigned and reinterpreted the icon. This is central to Bulgari and we restarted the reinvention in the 1940s mostly through secret watches, inspired by antiques from Pompeii, and more recently we have looked at necklaces, bracelets and rings, covering all price ranges.”

By the time the 1960s arrived, Italy’s economy was booming. Tourism was back, the city had undergone extensive reconstruction and business was on the up. It was also a golden age in terms of contemporary art and fashion – Valentino, Gucci and Ferragamo were all becoming references in worldwide fashion – and a moment of creativity and daring was dawning. “People were trying to push boundaries in their lives,” says Boscaini. “In Italy women smoking was a social revolution and Bulgari started making ladies’ cigarette cases in gold and diamonds.

“It was an audacious period and, with this mood, a new Serpenti watch emerged, which was bold and colourful but not necessarily overly precious. We had the jewelled versions, but we also had the enamel ones that did not go for super-high prices.” For women that had been brought up to be sober and almost invisible, Italian fashion started to look for novelties in more aggressive ways and it was here the Serpenti came to be more than a watch. At the end of the 1960s, there were belt versions, “but only a few were made, because only a few crazy ladies could wear them,” adds Boscaini. The first necklaces also emerged, taking Serpenti away from its Tubogas origins as they didn’t need the same articulated rigidity as the watches.

As Boscaini continues to show me more snake jewellery and images, it strikes me how each one has a different expression and a different personality. She laughs: “Some are cute, some look a little bit funny and some are even quite aggressive,” she agrees. “There is one in yellow gold and green gemstones that looks so fierce that many people in the company did not want to buy it back. The shape of the heads has changed over time, but this is only down to the designer’s choice and they suit different people. Today, the 1950s and 1960s Serpentis are the most desirable, fetching sky high auction prices.”

Eternity rings

Possessing an innate sense of how to treat a jewel, Bulgari also understands the importance of anticipating market trends, listening to client demands and evolving in line with these. Hence, in 2016, the Serpenti watches, which have been powered by quartz movements for the past 25 years, addressed the call by women for more mechanical watches with the introduction of the Serpenti Incantati Skeleton Tourbillon, which once again revisits the serpent theme.

“This year has been super-interesting for Serpenti,” says Boscaini. “It has been a really fruitful time for the snake and completely disruptive compared to past evolutions. In jewellery, there was a journey to minimalism – working with the snake head whereas traditionally it had been all about the body. In necklaces, rings and bangles, the head becomes everything. I suppose it is an extreme representation of the dragonhead from the 1960s with an openworked, geometric interpretation. We have also focused on the skin and individual scales. It is so different and unexpected but instantly recognisable. The eyes are especially important – that’s why this is called the Eyes On Me edition.”

But it is with the 2016 Serpenti Incantati (enchanted snake) watch that the greatest surprise was delivered. Another new interpretation of the snake, the head completely disappears and the body becomes everything. As with the original Tubogas, the serpent becomes more abstract, wrapping itself around the dial of a traditional round watchcase, completing the circle by holding its own tail in its mouth – an ancient symbol known as “ouroboros” that represents cyclicality, eternity and constant re-creation of something that cannot be extinguished.

For Babin, the Incantati brings together the two sides of Bulgari. “It is often said that we are about uniting Swiss watchmaking and Italian flair and this watch is the embodiment of that. It is pure horology but, at the same time, represents an obsession for design rarely found in Swiss watchmaking. It is purely Italian. This is the magic of the piece – even the tourbillon becomes a symbol of mastery in design.”

In one more twist, this clever reptilian bezel provides a bejewelled frame for a skeleton-worked, in-house tourbillon calibre. Just 30 examples exist in pink gold and 20 in white gold, all featuring a mainplate and bridges in gold which, along with the steel components, are hand-finished with circular graining and snailing. Dial side, the tourbillon performs a rotation every 60 seconds, adding a beating heart to this fascinating timepiece.

“Developing new iterations is part of our cultural mindset,” says Boscaini. “And while the company is fully focused on the future, we have not always celebrated our past as much as we should. Mr Babin is changing that and we are taking great steps to recover our heritage pieces. The past is such a huge part of the future and it is also the reason why we can continually evolve.”

Babin agrees: “It is not difficult for a company like Bulgari to evolve,” he says. “There is no process. We try to be fluid with new talent, new arts and new architecture. It is part of our culture to put people in a context where development will happen organically.”

As my time with Babin draws to an end, I ask him one final question: Bulgari’s CEO since 2013, had he held the position at the time of the now legendary 2011 Christie’s Elizabeth Taylor sale, would he have increased the budget to allow more of her Bulgari treasures to be bought back for the archives? “Although our history is paramount, I think my answer would have to be ‘no’,” he says thoughtfully. “We bought a few incredibly important pieces during that sale, but I think it is much better to keep the Taylor collection small. It would lose the magic if we had everything. After all, our belief is that a Bulgari jewel only comes alive when it is worn. We have acquired a lot but I am honestly glad that that the majority of pieces remain with people who will love and wear them.”

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