A Touch of Class, A Touch of Splendor

The Art of Bulgari: La Dolce Vita & Beyond, 1950–1990
February 2, 2014 Updated: February 1, 2014

They still razzle dazzle and sparkle at the de Young—one of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco that is currently featuring The Art of Bulgari: La Dolce Vita & Beyond, 1950–1990, an exhibition with close to 150 spellbindingly exquisite pieces created by Bulgari, the renowned Italian jeweler, over four decades.

The elegance of luminous lifestyle is reflected in this U.S. exclusive to the de Young exhibition, now on view through Feb. 17. It highlights the boldly colored combinations of gemstones, use of heavy gold, and forms derived from Greco-Roman classicism, the Italian Renaissance, and the 19th-century Roman school of goldsmiths, thus creating Bulgari’s own trademark and inaugurating the “Italian school” of jewelry design.

At a lecture at the de Young on Bulgari in the Movies, Brad Rosenstein, independent curator, historian, and a longtime fan of Bulgari, said: “Bulgari jewels have a ‘voice’ that is so unique and distinctive. Their opulence, design brilliance, and unique combination of innovation and tradition have few peers anywhere in the world of fine jewelry.”

Among the stunning gemstones of this exhibit are many pieces from Elizabeth Taylor’s personal collection, now a part of the Bulgari Heritage Collection. According to Rosenstein, Taylor’s jewelry collection was extensive and included a number of Bulgari historic pieces. The famed jewelry house acquired about eight of her signature Bulgari pieces for the Bulgari Heritage Collection from Christie’s auction house in New York last year. The complete collection fetched $116 million.

The Bulgari collection is synonymous with exquisite craftsmanship and often enriches its creations with the addition of colorful cabochon-cut gems—sapphires, emeralds, rubies—and ancient coins imbedded in gold. Bulgari jewelry was a favorite among stars of the silver screen, who were models of elegance, beauty, and style, including Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren, Grace Kelly, Ingrid Bergman, Audrey Hepburn, Gina Lollobrigida, Monica Vitti, Anita Ekberg, Anna Magnani, Claudia Cardinale, Romy Schneider, and Carla Bruni, to name a few.

The timeless glamour of Bulgari has adorned the beautiful film stars not only in real life but also when they appeared in big screen productions. In his introduction to the exhibition’s book, “Bulgari for Americans,” Martin Chapman writes that “Bulgari has been an attraction for Americans visiting Rome since the 1930s. But the store on Via dei Condotti began to draw more visitors from the States during the 1960s, when many film stars were in Rome making films at Cinecittà—the principal Italian movie studio.”

Elizabeth Taylor was a great fan of the Bulgari jewelry house, frequenting it on breaks from filming Cleopatra in 1961 and 1962 and continuing her patronage long after the production was finished. She was known to have quipped that Bulgari was one of the great perks of filming Cleopatra in Rome.

In her autobiography, “My Love Affair with Jewelry,” Elizabeth Taylor writes: “On a break from shooting Cleopatra, I took a stroll to Bulgari with Richard Burton. Richard was so romantic that he’d use any excuse to give me a piece of jewelry.” Such was her fervor for the jeweler that Richard Burton said: “The only word that Elizabeth knows in Italian is Bulgari.”

In later years, remembering their trip to Rome, Burton said, “I introduced Elizabeth to beer and she introduced me to Bulgari.” They fought there, they loved there, but they were regulars at Bulgari. And that was the legacy of their love story in Rome and beyond. “Live, Love, Laugh” was inscribed on her gold charm bracelet of 20 medallions. She certainly did it her way.

Last May, Sotheby’s Auction House in Geneva, Switzerland, auctioned off Gina Lollobrigida’s personal collection of 23 Bulgari jewelry pieces for $4.9 million, with proceeds benefitting stem cell research. Bulgari also acquired a few of her pieces for the Bulgari Heritage Collection, adding the finest designs created by Bulgari in the ‘dolce vita’ years of the 1950s and 1960s.

“As some of the luminaries who had signature Bulgari pieces began to divest their collections or pass away, Bulgari did not want some of their finest work to disappear into private hands. They wanted to preserve their history and share it with the public and so began acquiring back some of their key pieces at auctions,” explains Rosenstein.

The Art of Bulgari: La Dolce Vita & Beyond, 1950–1990, continues the Fine Arts Museums’ track record of exhibitions highlighting the work of decisive figures and movements in the world of fashion and design, including Cartier in America, Balenciaga in Spain, Yves Saint Laurent, and The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier.

For additional information on this exhibit and tickets, visit www.deyoungmuseum.org.