Not Afraid of Snakes: The History of Bulgari, the House Behind the Serpenti

Date: 03/10/2023

Just last year Bulgari celebrated its 75th anniversary, and managed to win the Jewelry category at the Grand Prix D’Horlogerie de Genève (an annual event for jewelry and watch-makers) with a version of their Serpenti Misteriosi watch. If you don’t know, this is a rose-gold watch with incredible diamond, turquoise, and ruby accents currently selling for about $228K. And no wonder: you can see how stunning the design work of this piece is for yourself!

But what is it about the design house that continues to set it apart from the rest? Why is it that their designs seem much more fluid and free to evolve than we see with other design houses?

While I was falling deeply in love with the Misteriosi, dreaming of a world where it could be mine, I started to seek out answers to these questions and more to better understand the history of the incredible pieces I love to wear. Here’s what I found!

Is it Bulgari or Bvlgari? According to my research, Bulgari is the actual name of the company, while Bvlgari is the logo for the company! The logo origin is thanks in part to Italian architect Florestano Di Fausto, who updated the design of Bulgari’s first storefront in Rome in 1933. By placing the brand’s name in Roman script, he eventually inspired the modern BVLGARI logo. 

Bulgari Origins: The Story of Bulgari

Although so many attribute Bulgari’s true origins to Rome and Italy, the truth is that the company was founded by Sotirios Voulgaris (pronounced…you guessed it, Bulgari), a Greek silversmith schooled by his family as a jeweler in his home Greece, and who first opened his boutique in Rome in 1884. In fact, Voulgaris was the only remaining child of 11 kids who was able to continue the family’s jewelry smithing trade.

In the beginning, silver was the material of choice and many of Voulgaris’ designs were done in the styles of the day. By the 1920s however – after he had opened his flagship boutique at Via Condotti 10, near the Spanish Steps – Voulgaris became enamored with creating what had become known as ‘high jewelry’ for the fashion world; yet, he was still working in the styles popularized by other jewelers of the day, like Cartier and Boucheron. It wasn’t until the 1940s that Voulgaris really began to embrace the culture around it–the free and wild world of Rome. This is actually when we first begin to see the Serpent appear in Voulgaris’ designs!

Did You Know? Elizabeth Taylor – who helped popularize the Bulgari Serpenti through her appearance in “Cleopatra” – visited Voulgaris’ Rome location so often in the 60s that eventually the design house named one of its private rooms after her? It is said to feature a hidden door that leads to a private courtyard where celebrities can escape, avoiding the paparazzi.

To this day, Rome continues to be the origin-point for the themes and motifs still available in many of Bulgari’s designs. Not only do we see geometric shapes that remind one of Rome’s one-of-a-kind architecture, but we also see reflections of Rome’s cobblestone streets, windows, and chapel floors among different collections. Some early designs even feature Roman coins! Voulgaris’ new home would similarly inspire him to utilize local craftwork methods, including the reworking of yellow gold, and the usage of the tubogas design. Finally in 1950, he let go of his silver-smithing origins to include more exuberant jewelry designs with vivid colors and huge, colorful gemstones–a man after my own heart!

What is Tubogas? Tubogas is a word (meaning flexible gas pipe) to describe the gold braiding that now acts as a signature to Bulgari’s designs. With WWII coming to a close, no one in Europe was interested in drawing attention with heavy, gemstone jewelry, opting instead for polished metal pieces that had more of a low-key edge. As a result, designers began to practice with the Tubogas design–but it was Voulgaris who had the idea to ‘rebrand’ Tubogas with a new identity in 1948, renaming it “Serpenti” after its coiled, shape-shifting effects as well as the serpentine armlets worn by Soldiers in ancient Rome. Noting that the technique was notoriously difficult to perfect  – it took about 15 years before the average goldsmith worked it out – no two Bulgari pieces created in that time are exactly the same. From what I’ve read, Bulgari’s archives even house sketches for almost 1000 unique pieces!

As all greats must pass on, so too did Sotirios, leaving his legacy behind to his family (the ‘Bulgari Brothers’), who have since grown the business with the help of several incredible creative and executive directors. By the 1970s, the design house had established locations across the rest of Europe and even in the US. From there they branched out from what they knew – watches and jewelry – to keep pace with other artisanal jewelry brands, creating fragrances, eyewear, leather goods, and even hotels and restaurants. Once a leading outsourcer of product, it was also around this time that Bulgari began bringing production ‘in-house’ – including the movement pieces required of their watches. In this way, Bulgari has been able to retain full control over material quality and production from start to finish. They still rely on their professional ateliers for hand-made craftsmanship of their best and most resilient pieces. 

Today, Bulgari Jewelry finds itself in the incredible hands of Lucia Silvestri, who has actually worked with the design house since she was 18, sourcing gemstones from around the world. Due to her deep dedication for the brand, incredible knowledge of gemstones, and now close connections with the Voulgaris family, she has had a unique impact on the evolution Bulgari has experienced–almost all of it centered on new and exciting iterations and imaginings of their original muse: The Serpenti.

The Bulgari Serpenti Rears Its Gorgeous Head

As I mentioned, the Bulgari Serpenti – or the snake motif that acts as a centerpoint for the Bulgari brand – was first imagined in the 1940s by Sotirios himself. Using the Tubogas technique, Voulgaris created countless handmade, double-wrapped bracelet designs and watch cuffs similar to ancient Roman jewelry designs. 

Through the 1950s, the Serpenti thus saw the first stages of its evolution, where more naturalistic designs began to appear in their portfolio. Around this time, consumers also began to see designs with the watch-face hidden away behind bejeweled variations of the snake’s head. Because the Tubogas technique was so difficult to master, Bulgari’s serpents were also highly sought-after pieces of art–the secret was that they combined steel and yellow gold! 

Then, in 1960 when the wrapped snake-style armlet was seen on famous actress Elizabeth Taylor in a set-photo from Cleopatra, the design took off and became truly iconic for the brand. New designs were continuously introduced, with the image of the serpent revered above all else. As representatives for the design house once said in a statement:

“Whether in a realistic or geometrically abstract manner, the snake winds along BVLGARI’S history as an embodiment of its hallmarks: love for color, juxtaposing materials, unmistakable wearability and state-of-the art goldsmith techniques.”

Since those early days, the Serpenti has seen some incredible revisions and interpretations that – although completely different from the original design – still bear deep resemblance to (or call back to) the first Serpenti seen in Bulgari’s many lines. For example, in 2009 the Serpenti was reintroduced with a more triangular form with exposed dials. Bracelet scales became more square and were offset in different inlays of gold, polished stone, and diamond-set gold. Just look at the transformation in these two versions of the Bulgari Serpenti from the 70s to 2015:

According to those in the know, Bulgari’s singular devotion to the Serpenti design has been rewarded again and again by consumers who can’t seem to get enough of each new iteration. From what Jean-Christophe Babin (Bulgari’s Chief Executive since 2013) says, Serpenti sales have gone up over 30 times in the last ten years!

This may be why we’re seeing such an incredible evolution continuing well into 2023, as Bulgari enters the final quarter of its first century of design.

Did you know? In the 1980s, Andy Warhol was known to visit the Bulgari store every time he visited Rome since he believed it was “the most important museum of contemporary art” of its time.

The Modern Evolution of Bulgari’s Serpenti

Starting in 2016, everything changed for Bulgari’s Serpenti. Yes, the design was still a mainstay for the house, yet with the launch of the Serpenti Incantati – a wristwatch with the serpent coiled around the face of the watch, and not the wrist – it would seem that even the fluid boundaries set by the iconic serpent were being cured into new shapes and concepts. Not only has it since appeared on handbags and eyeglasses, but the original icon is being recognized in new iterations I personally cannot wait to get my hands on. 

Here are my top 3 favorites that have come out since 2016!

My 3 Favorite Iterations of Bulgari’s Serpenti (since 2016)

1. The Serpenti Twist 

Although Bulgari has a reputation for incorporating unusual precious materials in their designs (such as silk, porcelain, and wood), and even though leather has been seen with the collection before, the youthful ‘Twist’ rendition of the Bulgari watch can be worn with a classy, classic-cut suit during the day, or give a cute ‘office-wear-out-there’ vibe to any nightlife outfit thanks to the thin, colorful watch-straps that you can change and accessorize. Indeed, the watch-face isn’t attached permanently to the strap. Great for everyday!

2. The Serpenti Seduttori

I may be biased on this one because of how much I love Cartier and their watch designs, but the Serpenti Seduttori collection released in 2019 is just what it promises to be: a sleek, seductive watch-face with smooth scale-like tabs around the wrist. Low-key but ultra sexy, I love the small details around the face, including the bejeweled stud on the right side. It reminds me of my own mix of classic cuts, edgy finery, and colorful ensembles. What I really love though is how this watch – even without the actual serpent present – exudes snake energy from every inch. It also harkens back to versions of the serpent we haven’t seen since 1935, back when Voulgaris was still at the helm. Either way, I feel like I can wear this watch almost anywhere, and love that it comes in both silver and yellow-gold.

3. The Serpenti Viper

One of the newest models available from Bulgari (released this year) invites us to empower our inner serpent into a Viper! With sharper, less rounded scale-molds for each piece, and a sharper face with minimalist design, this jewelry line explores the more subtle natures of the Serpenti. Calling it a ‘metamorphosis’ of their original design, this Viper style Serpenti is intended to evoke feelings of confidence and inner strength. With earrings, bracelets, and necklaces available in this style – in onyx, rose gold, yellow gold, and silver – I cannot wait to add these latest adornments to my personal collection at home!

The Future of Bulgari’s Serpenti

If I’m being completely honest though, the three iterations I share above barely scrape the surface when it comes to the different and exciting ways in which Bulgari designers and creatives are challenging (and even de-constructing) the Serpenti concept to create referential pieces that we unconsciously still recognize as the Bulgari Serpenti–even when the snake isn’t present. 

For example, this scaled necklace explores the concept of the snake scale, and imagines the smooth, slender body of a snake running along its wearer:

Bulgari also delivers a line of ‘high jewelry’ twice a year, where they create one-of-a-kind pieces to celebrate color and exuberant design. Again, we see the snake motif re-imagined–the echo of it present amid the scales and jewels adorning the popular ‘wrap’ design. 

Highly sought-after, these pieces are hand-crafted in Rome by Bulgari’s ateliers and do NOT conform to traditional designs and patterns for jewelry craft. Instead, using Italy as their inspiration, Bulgari has continued to pursue bold, curvacious, and colorful designs that each include a bit of “pazzia”, or “madness”, in Italian. Just look at how vivid this recent design is compared to what you may have seen from Bulgari otherwise:

As I continue to watch this iconic emblem and brand evolve, it’s exciting to see such a push from the design house to introduce new concepts and products to their Serpenti collection–and from what I hear they plan to release more anniversary products throughout 2023. 

What’s even more exciting is to know that from one mind’s eye came the entire architecture of what we now deem the Bulgari Serpenti. It is an iconic signature for celebs, and yet manages to retain both its humble beginnings, and the strength of the snake that started it all. And although Bulgari does sport several other visible motifs among its collections (including floral designs), I am most looking forward to seeing what else this serpent can evolve into! 

I’m curious though: what do you think about Bulgari’s Serpenti? 

Is it your favorite motif from the design house, or is there another motif you enjoy more? Have you purchased any new pieces recently, and if so, what caught your eye?

I would love to hear your thoughts, and as always look forward to hearing from you through Instagram!

Until next time,

With all my love,