The Beckertime Brand Series: Bvlgari
The scale of different disciplines in which Italian giant Bvlgari excels is astounding in its scope. Much like fellow luxury marque, Cartier, they are universally admired for their jewelry, fragrances and designer purses. Unlike Cartier however, Bvlgari has also branched out into a range of hotels and resorts for the discerning elite.
In more recent years though, the brand has been seen as one of watchmaking’s major innovators, creating a series of world beating pieces with unmistakable aesthetics and, by partnering with some of the very best in the business, has entered the realm of high horology.
Below we take you through the long history of Bvlgari, as well as taking a look at some of the standouts in their contemporary collection.
The brand was found in 1884 by silversmith, Sotirios Voulgaris, a 27-year old from the Epirus region of Greece, an area well known for its craftsmen.
He had grown up studying the art of silversmithing in the family’s shop in the town of Paramythia, on Greece’s western coast.
However, the shop and the town itself was razed to the ground in 1873 by Ottoman rulers and so Sotirios and his father were forced to flee, wandering through Greece and Albania for four years before finally settling on the island of Corfu and opening another workshop in 1877.
Here, Sotirios would meet his mentor, Macedonian goldsmith Demetrios Kremos.
The pair would eventually leave Corfu for Italy in 1880, where they opened a shop of their own in Naples and began to make a success of the business. Unfortunately, that success would make the two the target for thieves, who stole everything they had made in 1881. Disheartened, Kremos and Voulgaris left Naples and traveled to Rome virtually penniless. Here, thanks to a Greek shopkeeper who allowed them to display their wares in his shop window, they were able to save enough money over the next three years to open another store of their own, at 75 Via Sistina.
The two men would part company that same year and so Sotirios was forced to go it alone. He decided to Italianize his name to adapt to his new home, changing his first name to Sotirio and adopting the phonetic version of his surname; Bulgari. He also took Bulgari as his solo business’s title.
He opened new premises at 85 Via Sistina selling his silverware and through relentless hard work managed to grow until he had a glamorous outlet in St. Moritz, Switzerland. He continued to expand and opened a second Rome location in 1894, this time at 28 Via dei Condotti, the city’s most fashionable shopping street. Wealthy locals on their way to St. Peter’s Basilica passed by and over the next 10-years, the business thrived. Bulgari was even able to hire Greek artisans, some from his own family, to assist with the venture.
Success bred more success and in 1905, Bulgari opened a third store, this time at 10 Via dei Condotti. This one, originally named the Old Curiosity Shop, still serves as the brand’s flagship location today. By 1908, Sotirio could boast a total of seven permanent locations and two points of sale in Italy and Switzerland.
As is so often the case in horology, it would be the next generation which took the business into the higher echelons of the industry. Sotirio’s two sons, Giorgio and Costantino took over the reins of the company following their father’s death in 1932. It was their idea to trademark the brand name BVLGARI written in the classical Roman alphabet and the two decided to concentrate on producing luxurious jewelry inspired by the latest fashion trends from Paris. Under their guidance, the marque would become renowned the world over.
Bvlgari had started to explore watchmaking as early as the 1920s when, inspired by Paris’s Art Deco movement, they produced highly jeweled ‘wristlets’ for women. As time went on and wristwatches began to grow in popularity, the brand started developing pieces for men too. At first, the brand concentrated their considerable expertise on the exterior visuals, and so there are vintage Bvlgari watches powered by movements from the likes of Audemars Piguet, Jaeger-LeCoultre and Vacheron Constantine, among others.
However, it would take until the 1940s before the manufacturer hit upon the first model which can be described as iconic.
A figure rich in symbolism, the serpent was often worn as a talisman by ancient Romans to bring good luck or ward off evil spirits. Bvlgari first incorporated the design into its jewelry in the 1940s and it has remained an instantly recognizable motif for the brand ever since.
Some of the first watches featuring a snake, known as the Serpenti, used a
‘Tubogas’, a type of bracelet which coiled around the wrist and had a hinged mouth that the wearer could open to reveal the dial underneath. The snake’s body would be intricately decorated and the head and tail set with diamonds and other precious stones.
The main Serpenti theme would flourish and move with the fashions of the day, getting more simplified or complex depending on the decade. Always massively popular with the elite, the esteem in which the design is still held was helped enormously by the patronage of stars such as Elizabeth Taylor.
The Bvlgari Roma
Bvlgari would continue to use classical Greek and Roman imagery for their next archetypal collection of watches.
In 1975 they introduced the Roma. A limited edition digital watch restricted to just 100 pieces and handed out to some of their favorite clients, it took ancient Roman coins as its inspiration. The flat, yellow gold case featured a thick encircling bezel with BVLGARI ROMA embossed on it and secured with a leather and hemp macramé strap.
The Roma was so well received that it led to an analogue version being put into production the same year, this time called simply the BVLGARI-BVLGARI and with a black enamel dial. The bezel was engraved with a double inscription of the brand’s logo and is still a mainstay of the modern portfolio.
The Bvlgari-Bvlgari made up the bulk of the offerings from the manufacture for many years. Available with either mechanical or quartz movements, it was released in steel, white gold or platinum, with stone or diamond pavé dials and with or without a date display.
In 1988, Bvlgari introduced their very first sports watch, the Diagono. With a name taken from the Greek word for ‘contest’—‘agón’—coupled with its diagonally sloping bezel, the quartz-powered steel 35mm and 38mm chronographs also sold well. They were followed with the inaugural Bvlgari dive watch, the Diagono Scuba in 1994.
Four years later, the Diagono would form the basis for the brand’s next icon, the Aluminium. Another quartz watch, it was available in small, medium and large versions, either as a chronograph or simple three-hander. The unorthodox creation had an aluminum case finished with a rubber bezel and strap, and was a big, cleanly designed statement piece which would go on to presage many of Bvlgari’s future sports models.
The New Millennium
As well received as Bvlgari’s watches had been, they were known more for their styling than for any horological innovation.
At the start of the 2000s, the brand decided to address that in dramatic fashion by buying both the Gérald Genta and Daniel Roth brands along with their manufacturing plants in Switzerland. This move into the rarefied world of haute horlogerie began a few years later, after absorbing all the information they could from the two legendary names and incorporating everything they had learned into their own watchmaking practices.
By 2004 they had developed enough to launch a model with their first in-house movement, the Bvlgari-Bvlgari Grande Complication. The watch used Bvlgari’s signature Roman coin-like case, while their new caliber provided a 64-hour power reserve, a variable inertia balance and a tourbillon.
That was the kick start the brand needed to dive deep into the truly complex, following that manufacture debut up with a series of highly impressive models.
2006’s Assioma Tourbillon Multi-Complication introduced an all new case shape, an inverted tonneau with robust looking bars at either end which extended in to become the watch’s lugs. The movement, the BVL416, housed a tourbillon, perpetual calendar and GMT.
The Assioma Heures Retrogrades released the same year was given a similar case but came with both a retrograde hours complication and an AM/PM indicator.
In 2009, on their 125th anniversary, Bvlgari unveiled the Sotirio Bvlgari line, with an updated take on the earlier coin shape housings and powered by the BVL 168, the first caliber to be designed and fabricated entirely by the brand’s own watchmaking team.
The following year, the Genta and Roth marques were both merged completely with Bvlgari and a total of 19 double branded models were released. Among them were chronos, minute repeaters, tourbillons and moonphases, along with the Bvlgari Gerald Genta Sonnerie Magsonic, a flagship offering driven by the GG 31001, a caliber containing an incredible 923 components. The handcrafted piece went on sale for $1,000,000 and featured three chiming complications (a petite and grande sonnerie and a minute repeater), two mainsprings and dual power reserve indicators.
The Octo Arrives
But the best was yet to come. 2012 saw the launch of a modern day legend in the distinctive and ‘could-only-be-the-work-of-Genta’ shape of the Octo series.
As a collection they are so important to contemporary watchmaking that we will be dedicating an entire article to them soon. But suffice to say for now, the Octo served to move Bvlgari in entirely new and unheralded directions. The holder of hatfuls of world records, it was this range which brought the manufacture to the attention of an audience far wider than ever before.
Bvlgari’s current portfolio leans heavily on the Bvlgari-Bvlgari, Aluminium and Octo lines. The former is really the all-day choice, with enough versatility to go from the office to the after work meet up without batting an eyelid. The Aluminium is still a rather lighthearted and casual creation, with thick rubber bezels and straps and a range of bright color options. And the Octo is among the most striking dress watch collections you will find, set with a number of impressive complications and high tech materials. Elsewhere, the Serpenti series is still very much in evidence, a constant presence since its debut in the 1940s.
Bvlgari have risen to horology’s top table through a combination of brave styling choices, inherent Greek influences and intelligent collaborations. The brand’s range of other specialties—the perfume, the handbags, the hotels, etc.—might mean their appeal is diluted among purist fans, but there is no doubting they produce some of the most extraordinary watches and movements in the industry.
A powerhouse in a challenging world, Bvlgari are now the real deal.