by Alice B-B
When Lucia Silvestri started working for Bulgari aged just 18, little did she know how far from her native Rome the quest for awe-inspiring stones would take her. Nonetheless, the Eternal City has always been at the heart of Bulgari–and now the brand has given something back.
“Rome… for me, it’s the secret of Bulgari,” says Lucia Silvestri, in her romantic Italian accent. And, frankly, if anyone has the keys to the secret behind this 133-year-old brand, you can bet on Silvestri, creative director of the jewellery “palazzo”, for which she’s worked for more than 35 years.
Elegant in a cream silk shirt, impeccable lipstick and freshly coiffed hair-with a hint of punk in her mismatched emerald-and-diamond stud earrings and a nonchalant pavé thumb ring-Silvestri has worked for Bulgari since she was 18 years old. As a young ingénue born and bred in Rome, she went to work for the company as a secretary while studying at university.
“I was studying biology, for love reasons,” explains Silvestri. But not, as it happens, for the love of biology. For the love of a man. Lucia’s inamorato was a doctor and together they had plans to open a practice.
But those pipe dreams were to remain as such from the day Lucia met Gianni Bulgari, one of three brothers who were running the company. “I was very young and shy, but there was a big, big bag of sapphires in his office and I started to touch the stones in a very natural way. Mr Bulgari was surprised,” she smiles. “And he said, ‘We can work together, I can teach you about the stones.’ In that moment, I had a flash-I understood this was what I wanted to do.”
Biology didn’t stand a chance; the young Silvestri was so dazzled by the stones that she was physiologically affected. “Every day I had a big emotion,” she says, “and every night I couldn’t sleep.” It was only a matter of time before Lucia gave up university and a few months later began her fledgling career from beneath the wings of the three Bulgari brothers.
To begin with, Lucia’s task was simple. She was based in the gemological department and was charged with selecting stones. “Mr Bulgari would say, ‘Mix the colours! Mix the colours! Don’t be shy, be daring!'” explains Lucia. “And then we would talk about combinations of colours and I would play with the different tones.”
Soon playtime was over, and it was time for Lucia to meet the big boys. Her first major stone-buying trip with Gianni Bulgari was to Sri Lanka, into the depths of the jungle. “It was like a movie,” explains Silvestri. “Mr Bulgari was like Indiana Jones and I was his assistant!” She vividly recalls how they drove for five hours from the capital, Colombo, into thick jungle, accompanied by armed bodyguards. “We arrived at a huge villa full of marble and fountains and there we met a very important, very secret man … the owner of the ruby mine. We heard he had the most beautiful rubies,” she explains.
But the day didn’t go according to plan. “Mr Bulgari was upset because we couldn’t find the right stones,” she adds, “and I was upset because the mine owner was very rude-he didn’t want to talk to me or even look at me.” For the young Silvestri, however, salvation came in exotic animal form. “As we prepared to leave, I could see a servant holding … instead of a dog, he had a baby leopard,” she beams. “I went crazy and played with him and it was one of the best experiences of my life.”
Unlike Spielberg’s film, the duo left without their “Lost Ark”. But Silvestri left with something more important; life lessons were learnt, specifically how gritty it would be for a beautiful young girl to be accepted in the macho and sometimes dangerous world of gem-buying. “It was tough, often I would open a negotiation and the dealers would say, ‘I want to talk to Mr Bulgari.'”
It was clearly a demoralizing time, but she had the support from those who mattered most. “Right from the beginning, the Bulgari brothers always took me very seriously,” she adds.
After 10 years, thanks to both her tenacity and the backing of the brothers, Lucia eventually drilled through the diamond ceiling of stone buying. She was accepted. “I’m very proud to be a woman in what is still very much a man’s world,” she says. Recently, as well as being appointed creative director, she has been made director of gem acquisitions for Bulgari, a job that includes trotting the globe on buying trips to Jaipur, New York, Switzerland, Antwerp, Paris, and her favourite place, Sri Lanka.
However, despite the international inspiration, ultimately all Bulgari roads lead to Rome. For this is the city where Sotirios Boulgaris, a Greek silversmith, arrived in 1881, hoping to make his fortune. He started out with a shop behind the Spanish Steps in 1884, and then opened a shop on Via Condotti. It’s the very same shop where in 1961, when Cleopatra was shooting in the city and Rome became known as “Hollywood on the Tiber”, new lovers Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton would sneak in through a secret entrance. Away from the paparazzi, they would while away the hours poring over jewellery with Gianni Bulgari, causing Burton once to quip: “I introduced her to beer, she introduced me to Bulgari.”
Naturally, Via Condotti remains the company’s global flagship store, and was remodelled in 2015 by designer Peter Marino, with the addition of DOMVS-a by-appointment, first-floor showroom dedicated to the brand’s heritage. Showcases chart the brand’s creative arc and display historically important pieces and jewels worn by movie stars including Ingrid Bergman, Anna Magnani and, of course, Elizabeth Taylor, who owned the legendary Emerald Suite. It’s whispered that since 2011, when Bulgari was bought by the French luxury group LVMH for £3.18billion, the brand’s “buy-back” budget has been “remarkably” increased. Which allows Bulgari’s history to be cemented in a series of global exhibitions and makes the job of its heritage curator a lot of fun.
But it’s not all about the glamour and twinkle of the city. Head towards the hem of Rome’s gladiatorial skirts, where in a demi-lune building exists another vital piece of the puzzle: the high jewellery workshops. It’s here that a sketch will arrive from the design department, and one solo craftsman, according to skill and temperament, will be assigned to that specific piece, and up to four months later, a fully formed sparkling creation leaves the building.
Meanwhile, back in the beating heart of the city, looking out of her appropriately “big boss” windows over the Tiber and across the city roofs, Silvestri explains, “I take inspiration from my travels, but for me it’s important to be back here, in Rome, at this table, with all the gems.” The table before her set as if for a fantasy picnic, with gemstones the size of cupcakes, while she pours a bag of sapphires like coloured sugar onto the table, making a sound like rich rain. “It’s important for me to see the colours of Rome,” she says.
But there’s more. For it’s not just the esoteric colours, light and Roman-ness of Rome that informs the collections. More tangibly, Bulgari has often recycled elements of the beloved city’s architectural vernacular. These include the Colosseum for the B.01 ring, the star motif in Piazza del Campidoglio that is repeated in various brooches, the beautiful gardens on the outskirts of Rome for Giardini Italiani collections and even the lowly travertine junctions on the city’s pavement that inspired the Parentesi collection.
And since 2013 it’s been the turn of the Terme di Caracalla, the Roman baths commissioned by Septimius Severus and built by 9,000 builders working every day for five years, before being inaugurated by his son Caracalla in AD 216. The soaring ruins of these 337m by 328m public baths, where up to 8,000 Romans a day would come to flex in the gym, bathe in hot and cold pools and relax in the library, are now stripped of their sculpture and columns, but elements of decoration remain, specifically the mosaic floors.
“I was in Caracalla by myself, and I saw the mosaic and immediately wanted to take my team,” says Silvestri. “The shape is so feminine.” The design that caught her eye looks like a fish scale or fan, and became the nucleus for Bulgari’s 2013 Divas’ Dream collection. The brand launched it in Paris with a high-jewellery piece that sold immediately. The collection has since expanded into fine jewellery and this summer sees the launch of Diva Festa, a panoply of turquoise, cornelian, mother of pearl and diamond inspired by the baths.
However, it’s not all take. Like all the best relationships, Bulgari’s alliance with Rome is a two-way street. As well as borrowing and reimagining the city’s architectural tropes, Bulgari also chooses to give back. In 2015, the brand donated €1.5million [about £1.3million] to renovate the Spanish Steps, while in 2016 it was the chance for the baths at Caracalla to receive some Bulgari karma.
“I had an idea that this area, which was entirely covered in grass, had mosaic beneath,” explains Marina Piranomonte, head of restoration at Caracalla. “Having adopted the mosaic shape, I suggested to Bulgari that they might want to help restore this public monument and maybe even discover further mosaics.”
The delicate process began; the team began to excavate and struck gold. “We found many tessera, the marble tiles that were first laid more than 2,000 years ago,” says Marina. “The Romans were snobs and wanted the most expensive marble from abroad instead of using Italian marble from Carrara, so the yellow is from Tunisia, the white and green serpentino from Greece, and the red porfido from Egypt.”
Six months later and the work is complete; the mosaic floor has been gloriously revealed. Bulgari’s commitment to helping restore Rome’s riches is now literally set in stone, while ensuring the brand’s lifeblood continues to flow. Observing the immense pride taken by Marina and her team of archaeologists in the revealed mosaics is a reminder of the gratification taken by the Bulgari craftsmen working on the Diva Festa collections. While one uncovers the beauty of the past, the other creates the beauty of the future, with a common bond; both are physically and intrinsically connected by the colours, mystery and goddamn chic that is Rome, this most eternal of cities.