a review of the De Young's dazzling, "The Art of Bulgari: La Dolce Vita and Beyond"

By Daisy Perez Flores

She's glamorous and you're not!

The De Young Museum’s crazy extravaganza of a show, “The Art of Bulgari: La Dolce Vita and Beyond, 1950-1990,” is a stunning exhibit of jewelry making at its finest, nuttiest and gaudiest. The show celebrates the craftsmanship and creativity of Bulgari in the decades that followed World War II, an era affectionately known as “La Dolce Vita” or the “Sweet Life.” It’s a perfect description of Bulgari’s achievements during that time and the show is notable not only for its outlandish jewelry, but also for the way it captures the sociology and spirit of post-war Italy, which was rebounding from the austerity of the war years. There’s a lot to learn in the placement of all those diamonds.

Bulgari is known for their impeccable craftsmanship, where not a single detail is spared and master craftsmen work tirelessly to complete a piece. One of the educational videos that accompanies the show, “The Making of a Bulgari Necklace,” details how the selection, certification and handcrafting of a piece takes over five hundred hours. This does not take into account the laborious task of finding gemstones in caves and underground, or the lengthy task of cutting the gemstones by lapidary. Jewelry might be unnecessary in the grand scheme of things, but producing jewelry like this is hardly a frivolous pursuit.
Hardly a baby's bib, but the Bib Necklace

In the post-war period Bulgari strayed away from the traditional “high style” of jewelry design, where white faceted diamonds dominate and colored gemstones were used as accents. Instead they started using colored gemstones as the primary material. This change in focus in how to imagine and design luxurious jewelry was a bold move that garnered them a great deal of publicity, praise and controversy. They arranged cabochon gemstones (rounded, not faceted) in unusual color combinations and faceted diamonds as accents, such as the turquoise, amethyst and emeralds that you find in the Bib necklace.

This aesthetic shift is really a shift in values and identity. Before the period that the show documents, Bulgari was a company dedicated to the tradition of the “high style.” In the service of that tradition, Bulgari designed and created jewelry that might be described as expressing a kind of humility, despite the cost. From these humble beginnings and philosophy, the company took a decided turn to celebrity and glitz and Bulgari became a worldwide brand. This was not a mistake, but a conscious, business decision. The company began to adapt to what was happening in the world (the very opposite of traditional), responded to those events in their pieces and began selling the culture back to itself. It was a canny move and one that was obviously a financial success.

The Tremblant Brooch

If the sixties were a revolt against tradition, so was Bulgari’s move from diamond white to more, shall we say, psychedelic arrangements. In their Tremblant Brooch, 1962, the white diamonds surround a fancy colored yellow diamond . In the “Flower Power” brooches you get the same arrangements—naturalistic, three-dimensional flowers, but with unusual colored gemstone combinations. Here, Bulgari is making a rather shameless attempt to catch the times. Everyone in the jewelry industry knows that diamonds are more expensive than gemstones and you can see how Bulgari is trying to make their luxury goods more accessible to the general public, both in cost and pop aesthetics.

For the rich hippy in your life

The Seven Wonders necklace (1961) features seven extremely large faceted emeralds. They are perfectly matched in color and clarity, which is quite hard to do. Emeralds and diamonds are rare minerals: their size and clarity determines their worth and the difference in price between a large, clear diamond and a small, distorted one can be staggering. As natural products, you can’t alter them if you want them to retain their beauty and so you have to find them, which of course contributes to their exorbitant cost. The Seven Wonders is worth 6.5 million wonderful dollars, not seven, which it still expensive. When contrasted with the signature Bib necklace (1965), which is unusual in its color combinations -- green emeralds, purple amethyst, turquoise and diamonds, all set in gold -- you can see the company’s business practices mutate in the differences in design.

7 wonders is right!
Using diamonds as highlights, the Bib’s bulbous cabochon gemstones give the piece a sense of volume. The delicious use of tertiary colors catches the eye and yet it is more of a trick than an aesthetic statement. Again, Bulgari lessens the use of faceted diamonds and replaces their sparkle with the bells and whistles of colored cabochon gemstones. It is clear that the time and precision it takes to cut excellent grade faceted gemstones or diamonds far exceeds those of these lesser stones, which lack stringent guidelines and are only concerned with maximizing size for effect.

Bulgari was influenced by popular culture and in particular pop art. The always-alert Andy Warhol wryly commented, “I always visit Bulgari, because it is the most significant modern art museum in the world.” Warhol understood the burgeoning relationship between commerce and art in the sixties -- in fact, was actively promoting it -- and intuitively caught what the company was attempting to do. Towards the end of the era on display, Bulgari starts to use a great deal of silver in their collection—it cheapens both the cost and design of what they produce. Nonetheless, the company is always canny and smart in their deviations from the “high style.” The introduction of silver comes in the form of Greek coins, which gives their use of silver a classical sheen.
I saw that in Target

When contrasting these pieces to the ones in the beginning of the era, we can see the materials diminishing in value. Starting with precious metals like platinum, Bulgari slipped to gold and finally silver. Silver is not only used as a metal, but also as a stand in for diamonds and precious gemstones. It’s clear that Bulgari’s abandoning of the “high style” is all about retaining their sense of luxury, while abandoning those practices that had produced that luxury in the first place, such as classic design and rareness.

One of the highlights of the show is the “Elizabeth Taylor” collection—she seemed to collect jewelry with the same avidity that she collected husbands. What might not be remembered is that she was a key figure in making the Bulgari name internationally known . The pieces on display here were gifts from various husbands as symbols of their love and devotion. Perhaps they should have given her “Cracker Jack” jewelry instead. Nonetheless, the young, elegant and attractive Taylor provided an appealing symbol for everything that the company wanted their work to stand for. Her commercial appeal allowed them to lower their quality and their price point in order catch customers looking for a little luxury in their lives, even if that luxury was largely symbolic.

As usual, he's right
The Bulgari Collection of expensive baubles is awe-inspiring and it certainly has dazzled the crowds at the De Young, not to mention their original post-war audiences, International and Italian. The shift in the Bulgari philosophy is clearly present in the De Young show. It’s not just the allure of the diamonds and audacious designs, but the way Bulgari’s jewelry beckons us to believe in its beauty and to want to become part of it. One might ask if we are only accents to Bulgari’s financial designs. Most of us probably can’t afford these expensive pieces or anything like it, but behind the glitter lies a brand more than happy to sell us grand fantasies on the cheap. Well, relative to the bank accounts of Elizabeth Taylor’s many husbands.

©The CCA Art Review and Daisy Perez Fuentes

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