De Young Museum Presents: Bulgari, A Vision of Art, Jewelry and Heritage


What comes to mind when one hears, Bulgari? The name has become synonymous with high-end jewelry. In fact, there seems to be no comparison for the standard the Italian company has set in the fine jewelry market. For over a century, Bulgari has epitomized fine jewelry making and maintained the balance of exuberance and class.

Image of exhibit entrance. Image Nathan Brandon.

The sumptuous jewels characterized by a casual formality are what curator, Amanda Triossi, calls (and many would agree), “…the essence of Italian style at large.” The exhibit currently on display at the De Young Museum in San Francisco, showcases vintage pieces from La Dolce Vita—literally translated “the sweet life”—from 1950 to 1990. This includes a room entirely dedicated to Elizabeth Taylor’s private collection, each sparkle from quarter inch diamonds a testament to the power and grace of women who held the world on a string and a pound of emeralds and diamonds around her neck.

Image of the Elizabeth Taylor banner at museum exhibit.

The pieces on display take the viewer on a journey through decades of Bulagri’s distinct interpretation of culture, visual language, and a fantasy world of all that glitters. Each diamond, each sapphire, and each ruby collected is of the highest grade, outsourced from the far reaches of the globe, and each piece constructed by the hands of the best jewelers. With an estimated one thousand hours of work per piece and an impending final inspection that could result in melting the piece back down to the drawing board, the result becomes mystical. To be face-to-face with these emblems of beauty is dream-like and inconceivable. One begins to realize what one is looking at is not simply high-end jewelry: it is truly art. 

Custom no flash exhibit images created by Nathan Brandon.

There are the earlier pieces which hold true to Parisian high jewelry standards: one type of precious stone employed individually with platinum and never mixed with others. Then there are the the early sixties pieces where Bulgari —among a young and vibrant style revolution—began to mix and match. We see the classic cabochon (smooth, round finish on gemstones) mixed high and low. Color is used as if it were a paint and there is no longer the strong concern with the individual intrinsic value of the gemstones. What counts is the ultimate effect, for example turquoise next to diamonds. The recurring ingredients of the Bulgari style in a 1967 necklace—color, cabochon, compact shape, mounted in yellow gold, and featuring emeralds, rubies, diamonds, and sapphires —combine to create the effect of a peacock tail of jewels. 

Playing Card sautoir, 1972. Bulgari Heritage Collection. Image Antonio Barrella Studio.


Known today as the Keira Knightly necklace, it’s a piece that is proof that regardless of era the timelessness of their design is confirmed. In another room, Bulgari dances with the unique relationship between jewels and other art forms. For example, the coin jewelry of Bulgari derives its inspiration from post-modernist architecture, like the Philip Johnson AT&T building of 1982, which ends in a classic greek pediment. We see sleek modern cuff bracelets and sautoir, or long necklaces, of gold and silver set with roman coins. The past and the present merge. Of everything on display, there are two pieces that speak the loudest; two gifts from Elizabeth Taylor’s fifth husband, Richard Burton, each worn extensibly by Elizabeth both on and off screen. The first jewel she received from Burton, is a spectacular broach of 23.44 carrots surrounded by diamonds that she received on the set of Cleopatra. 

Elizabeth Taylor brooch, image created by Nathan Brandon.

As a wedding gift, she also received a luxurious emerald and diamond necklace to which the broach can be attached as a centerpiece. The other pièce de résistance, which acted as the poster image for the exhibit, is an art deco inspired sautoir made in 1972 and gifted as a fortieth birthday gift with matching ring. This piece is set with a very fine Burmese sapphire of 57.5 carrots and is characteristically Bulgari with the cabochon rounded effect. Beyond its initial splendor it is unique in creation because from the 60s onward Bulgari used mainly yellow gold to set their jewels. This platinum sautoir harkens back to the original days of high Parisian influence. 

Emerald and diamond necklace, belonging to Elizabeth Taylor. Image created by Nathan Brandon.
Elizabeth Taylor Burmese sapphire necklace. Image created by Nathan Brandon.

Whether you are just a casual observer or a modern day queen of the Nile, it is plain to see the extraordinary diversity and creative power of Bulgari. From 1950 to 1990, what is clear is that Bulgari has been able to respond to changing times and remain true to itself, which as an artist is one the greatest challenges faced. It’s easy to see why according to Richard Burton, “The only word Elizabeth knows in Italian is Bulgari.” 

Exhibit Catalogue available for purchase here.

Lecture material and subject property of the De Young Museum:


De Young Museum image, courtesy of Nathan Brandon.

 Writer: Habibi Winter Editor: Nathan Brandon, M.A. Exclusive photos credit: Nathan Brandon, M.A.


***ORIGINALLY Published 12/14/13 –