Bulgari’s Serpenti Eyes On Me collection revisits its iconic motif to striking effect
At times daunting and ominous, the serpent is not the most obvious symbol of femininity. And yet, in the hands of Bulgari’s master jewellers, the snake is transformed into a stamp of sensuality, power, love and temptation.
The historic jewellery house has revisited the serpent’s captivating charm yet again, with its latest collection, Serpenti Eyes On Me. This time, there is an alluring emphasis on the eyes of the serpent, as well as the rhythmic patterning of its scales. The animal is a hallmark symbol of Bulgari – one of the brand’s most captivating and timeless emblems. Since it was first used in the 1940s, the motif has become intertwined with the identity of the brand; the mere mention of Bulgari is enough to bring to mind the image of a hypnotic snake, likely with emeralds as its eyes.
And yet, neither serpent motifs nor high-jewellery designs were a part of the early Bulgari story. Launched in 1884 in Rome by Greek silversmith Sotirio Bulgari, the company focused primarily on silver ornaments and decor pieces, as well as simple silver necklaces. In 1904, Bulgari opened his first store and named it Old Curiosity Shop, after a Charles Dickens novel. He soon began expanding his portfolio of work, creating more wearable, jewelled accessories to add to the boutique’s collection of plates, goblets and the like.
It wasn’t until the early 1930s, when Bulgari passed away and left the business to his two sons, Giorgio and Costantino, that the company shifted its focus onto precious stones and jewellery. In the 1940s, the serpent motif emerged, and since then, has become an intrinsic part of the high-jewellery house.
Bulgari’s international fame was cemented after Hollywood actress Elizabeth Taylor developed an attachment to the jewellery house while filming in Rome in 1962. “Undeniably, one of the biggest advantages to working on Cleopatra in Rome was Bulgari’s nice little shop,” wrote Taylor in her book, My Love Affair with Jewellery. Throughout Taylor’s much-publicised affair with Cleopatra co-star Richard Burton, she was showered with luxurious Bulgari pieces, developing a particular penchant for high carat counts and grandiose gemstones. In 2011, Bulgari bought back some of Taylor’s iconic pieces at a Christie’s auction, including a 23.44-carat emerald and diamond brooch that was Taylor’s engagement gift from Burton, and became the most valuable emerald jewel to ever sell at auction.
In 1962, Taylor wore a Bulgari Serpenti gold watch while on the Cleopatra set. It coiled like a bracelet around her wrist, with the timepiece hidden within the mouth of the serpent, which was studded with marquis-cut diamonds and emeralds. The flexible gold coil of the design was formed from the brand’s signature tubogas metalworking technique, inspired by gas-carrier pipes from the early 1900s. Present-day models of the watch, worn by celebrities such as Naomi Watts, Ashley Olsen, Sonam Kapoor and Anna Dello Russo, showcase the dial in its entirety, rather than it being concealed inside the serpent’s mouth.
“Powerful” and “extravagant” are qualities of the woman who wears the Serpenti, claims Lucia Silvestri, who is the creative director of Bulgari jewellery. “Serpenti is inextricably bound to those women who made history something to be remembered. They break the rules, capsize conventions and instinctively follow their inner selves.”
In the brand’s new Serpenti Eyes On Me collection, its spirit animal has shed some of its toughness, taking on a lighter, more contemporary aesthetic. The serpent is given some space to breathe, carved into pendants, bracelets and rings in yellow and white gold. Some are entirely bedazzled with pavé diamonds, while others incorporate the gleaming gemstone more sparingly, but what almost all of the pieces in the new range share is a geometric, hexagonal stamp – an homage to a serpent’s scales.
“This year we wanted to focus on the very essence of the snake: the head, and more than that, the eyes,” says Silvestri. “The concept of the head comes from our snakes from the 1960s and the 1970s, where the idea of the hexagonal scale pattern was already existing.”
The geometric honeycomb-like pattern shifts in dimension, scale and frequency: at times only four elongated hexagons are impressed into the gold, providing the setting for a trio of diamonds, while other designs feature a lattice-style combination of cut-out hexagons bordered with diamond fillings. The faces of the serpents are punctuated with pear-shaped jewels – one-of-a-kind amethysts, emeralds, rubellites or malachites, arranged to denote the wide-set slivers of a snake’s foreboding eyes. The symbolism is deliberate; just as an eye’s iris is inimitable, no gemstone has an exact twin.
“Eyes are seductive, colourful, meaningful and unique. This creates an immediate link for me to the world of gemstones,” says Silvestri, who has been with the jewellery house since the age of 18, when she joined the company’s gemological department. She worked as director of gem acquisitions for Bulgari before becoming creative director, and has years of experience in selecting and sorting gemstones. “An incredible gem conquers you with its shine and radiance – it keeps a secret story and it has a personality that is truly unique,” she says.
In ancient cultures all around the world, the serpent held extraordinary significance, symbolising fertility, eternity, immortality, desire and guardianship – quite the variety for a single icon. Still, the brilliance of the Bulgari brand is its ability to take this complex symbol, with its multifaceted traits, and adapt it into something wearable and, more importantly, desirable. After all, it’s not often that a fashion or jewellery label can stay so devoted to a particular symbol, season after season, without it becoming monotonous. Silvestri too, admits that the task of recreating the iconic emblem is one of the design team’s greatest challenges. Yet, time and again, the reptile proves its power to attract, tempt and conquer.
“The woman and the snake have the same capability to seduce with their hypnotic gaze,” says Silvestri, and although this reflects a recurring theme in Bulgari jewellery, the Serpenti Eyes On Me range marks a slight departure from traditional Bulgari designs, offering wearable and somewhat toned-down versions of the jewellery house’s greatest hits.
These new renditions will not only appeal to the client who seeks standout pieces to accompany her evening wear, but also to the woman who combines a concoction of different jewellery pieces and will happily add the majestic reptile, with its magnetic pull and mesmerising gaze, to her everyday layered necklaces and stacked rings. And whether it rests calmly on her collarbone or is coiled around her wrist, all eyes will be on the serpent.
Read this and more stories in Luxury magazine, out with The National on Thursday, November 3.