Georgina Safe April 12, 2012
Precious ... pearl, amethyst, emerald and spinel necklace by Bulgari.
For luxury goods house Bulgari, the gems used in high jewellery give a piece heart.
Most people appreciate precious gems with their eyes but for the chairman of Bulgari, Paolo Bulgari, to truly assess the merits of a ruby or emerald, he closes his eyes and cradles it in his hand.
"He closes his eyes, he opens the paper packet and he feels the gem, touching the gem for, like, 20 seconds or 30 seconds," says the director of high jewellery for Bulgari, Giampaolo Della Croce.
"The first time I asked him, 'How did you know that it was the right gem, because you didn't look at the beautiful ruby?' He said, 'If you bring me the ruby I'm sure the colour is perfect but the proportion, the feeling of it is extremely important. If the gem is too thick or sharp it will not support the feminine beauty of the woman who will wear it.'"
Bulgari has been dedicated to enhancing female beauty since it was founded in Rome in 1884 by Sotirio Bulgari, the grandfather of Paolo Bulgari.
Today Bulgari's headquarters are still in Rome, overlooking the Tiber river, where Della Croce, a gentle and elegant Italian, is explaining the company's exaltation of the beauty of stones above all else when beginning to create a piece of jewellery.
"The jewels are made exactly as a beautiful lady, so the gems are like the eyes, and through the eyes you can see into the soul. The gems are always the spirit, so they are always the most important and emotional part of the jewel."
This is particularly so when he is creating Bulgari's high jewellery, a collection of exquisitely crafted pieces designed to showcase gemstones of exceptional quality. The one-of-a-kind ornaments represent the quintessence of Bulgari design, which is distinguished by its focus on jelly bean hues, cabochon (rounded) cuts and surprising combinations of colour and volume.
"Our high jewellery is the one-of-a-kind little babies versus the twin brothers we have in the other jewellery," Della Croce says. "These [high] jewels can be considered the ambassadors of our beauty and brand history, jewels that can be collected by future generations."
The Bulgari brand has long been a byword for glamour. In the 1950s, stars such as Sophia Loren, Audrey Hepburn, Tyrone Power and Kirk Douglas discovered the allure of Bulgari and today Nicole Kidman, Sharon Stone and Catherine Zeta-Jones, among other celebrities, adorn themselves in the Italian house's jewels.
Bulgari's most famous celebrity customer was Elizabeth Taylor. When her lover Richard Burton took the actor to the Bulgari boutique on Via Condotti in Rome, "I used to get so excited that I would jump on top of him and practically make love to him in Bulgari," Taylor told The New York Times. No wonder Burton showered Taylor with Bulgari gifts.
A photograph of Taylor wearing Bulgari jewels is among those of many celebrities adorned in the brand on a wall in the office of Lucia Silvestri, who heads Bulgari's raw-material purchasing department.
It's a weekday afternoon but Silvestri appears red-carpet ready herself in a yellow gold choker sparkling with blue and pink sapphires and gleaming pearls.
"I like to wear jewels like this because when I work with the stones it's always so important to touch and try them," she says. "I can't resist!"
It's not hard to see why. Her work table is strewn with amethysts, tourmalines, emeralds and rubies as she arranges stones from a recent buying trip to Jaipur to form the basic outlines for necklaces.
Once the design idea for a jewel has been finalised, it is translated into a series of drawings and the stones are set in wax to determine, in collaboration with the designers, whether they comply exactly with the proportions of the approved design.
The results are then shared with Bulgari's high jewellery workshop on the outskirts of Rome, where I watch craftspeople work quietly to transform the drawings into exquisite three-dimensional objects.
In Silvestri's office an emerald and diamond necklace has just arrived back from the workshop and she suggests I try it on. I'm not much of a jewellery wearer but my Elizabeth Taylor moment reminds me of something Della Croce had said earlier about every woman having a jewel that is right for only her.
''Sometimes the ladies are asking me, 'Giampaolo, which one do you think is the perfect jewel?''' he says. ''But it depends whether you are petite, or you have a very nice neck or beautiful hands, as to whether it is a necklace, a ring or earrings. For me, the best jewel is the jewel that you would die for in a way that you would feel naked without wearing.''
Della Croce will likely have some of Sydney's women swooning when he hosts high jewellery commission appointments with Bulgari's top clients here today, before moving on to Melbourne where he will meet with clients and give a lecture on high jewellery at the National Gallery of Victoria on Monday.
Though only a handful of the world's wealthiest women can afford the bespoke jewels, Della Croce is adamant high jewellery nonetheless plays an important role in the overall branding and marketing of Bulgari.
''It is very difficult in this very competitive world because there are so many brands that compete in a very strong way, so it's important to share this high jewellery passion.''
To this end Bulgari tours examples from its high jewellery collection to key stores around the world each year, with the aim of inspiring customers to commission a piece of their own if they can afford it or, if not, purchase a trinket from Bulgari's main line of jewellery instead.
''Of course we are a brand who has the purpose to sell,'' Della Croce says. ''But we don't like to sell a massive number of things; what we like to sell is a dream and an inspiration. If you can let circulate this spirit then of course the visibility will be much higher and of course the sales will be more interesting.''