When in Rome

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 28, Autumn 2011

Page 20

Richard Burton said of his wife, the great screen actress Elizabeth Taylor: "The only Italian word she knows is Bulgari." And she was not alone. For the film stars who arrived in Rome in the fifties and sixties, shopping at Bulgari, the fashionable jeweler of the era, was on the itinerary in the same way as a visit to St Peter's. Life in Rome, at the time, was indeed sweet, fuelled not only by the Italian economic revival, but also by an influx of international celebrities. La Dolce Vita, the legendary Federico Fellini film of 1960, encapsulated the moment: the cafés, the nightclubs, the open-top sports cars and smoke-wreathed dinners, all played out against a backdrop of decaying Baroque splendor and classical ruins.

In the post-war years Cinecittà, the Rome studio founded by Mussolini in the 1930s, offered a delightful and cheap location to movie makers from around the world, and local stars, such as Sophia Loren, Monica Vitti and Anna Magnani, were joined by international legends, such as Audrey Hepburn (Roman Holiday), Jean Peters (Three Coins in a Fountain) and, of course, Elizabeth Taylor. For these famous beauties, the city offered outstanding off-duty attractions. 'Design' was Italy's new watchword, and the local furs, fashion and jewelry were all exceptional. In the latter arena, Bulgari was pre-eminent.

Founded by Sotirios Boulgaris, an émigré from Greece in the late 19th century, Bulgari had initially specialized in silver. By 1905, however, the shop had moved to the fashionable Via dei Condotti and diversified into precious stones. Here, opposite the famous Antico Caffè Greco (whose past patrons included Stendhal, Liszt and Ibsen), Sotirios' sons, Giorgio and Costantino, gradually acquired five marble-framed windows and a clientele as glittering as their wares.

The brothers were among the first to realize that film stars could provide the perfect setting for their stones and so they arranged for Anna Magnani to wear Bulgari jewels in the 1946 movie Il Bandito. A decade later, the firm forged an official link with the film business, designing the awards for the new David di Donatello, the Oscars of Italy. Gina Lollobrigida, Sophia Loren and Ingrid Bergman were all regularly featured in newsreels, resplendent in Bulgari.

There was, however, no greater Front Page beauty than the jewellery-obsessed Elizabeth Taylor and, when the violet eyed superstar began filming Cleopatra at Cinecittà in 1962, she spent many happy hours at Via dei Condotti. "I used to visit Gianni Bulgari [son of Giorgio] in the afternoon and we'd sit and swap stories," she recalled. Eddie Fisher, Taylor's fourth husband, had always understood the therapeutic effect that carats had on his wife, but co-star Richard Burton, whom Taylor fell scandalously and passionately in love with during filming, still had to learn. "I introduced Liz to beer,' said the Welshman. "She introduced me to Bulgari."

Burton, however, was a quick study and when, within months, he proposed to Taylor, the 'will-you' moment was accompanied by a spectacular emerald-and-diamond brooch. This was soon joined by a matching necklace and the Bulgari set quickly became the world's most photographed gems.

The jewelry house was known for its masterful way with large, rare gems and its exceptional use of color – particularly the color blue. Though colored diamonds were certainly rarer in their collections than sapphires, for the connoisseur, the blue diamond has always had a particular allure. (Perhaps the most famous diamond of all is the blue Hope Diamond, now in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, that was brought back from India in the 17th century by French explorer Jean Baptiste Tavernier and sold to Louis X1V.) Today, blue diamonds account for less than one per cent of all diamonds mined and are considered to represent the precious stones at their purest. The term 'fancy' applies to any diamond of intense color; however, the appraise of a colored stone lies not only in the number of carats, but in the intensity of the shade. The spectrum extends from 'light' to 'fancy light', then to 'fancy dark', 'fancy deep' and finally to the most desirable of all, 'fancy vivid'.

The size and clarity of a stone is, of course, a gift of nature, but setting it to best effect is a sophisticated art, a skill that Bulgari mastered as early as the 1920s, when the house began to twin colorless with fancy diamonds. The diamond and 'fancy vivid' blue diamond ring that Bonhams is offering in September in New Bond Street was commissioned by the vendor's father in the 1960s and it is typical of the maker's remarkable elegance and simplicity. Like other Bulgari pieces of the period, the ring has far exceeded its original appraise. "The interest in colored stones has grown enormously in the past 20 years," says Jean Ghika, Director of Jewelry at Bonhams. "Jewels of this pedigree are increasingly seen as a sound investment." The sale of the ring should certainly attract attention from around the world – rather like Elizabeth Taylor in her Bulgari set.

Lisa Freedman writes for the Financial Times and numerous other publications.
Sale: Fine Jewellery
New Bond Street
Wednesday 21 September at 2pm
Enquiries: Jean Ghika +44 (0) 20 7468 8282

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