For 75 years the Italian jewelry house Bulgari has created and recreated the image of a snake in its jewelry and watches — and more recently, in its accessories, with the reptile’s distinctive ovoid head appearing on everything from handbags to eyeglasses.
The serpent has rewarded that devotion by becoming the house’s muse and best seller. “Serpenti is our leading line,” Jean-Christophe Babin, the house’s chief executive since 2013, said in a recent interview in Geneva. “Sales have gone up 30 times in the past 10 years.”
Time to celebrate! And Bulgari has myriad plans to toast Serpenti’s 75th anniversary all the way through the first quarter of 2024.
The party kicked off in November with “Serpenti Metamorphosis,” a digital exhibition by the Turkish artist Refik Anadol incorporating 200 million images of the snake and its environment, including “stones, temples and flowers,” Mr. Babin said. The display at the Saatchi Gallery in London (until Dec. 23) also includes Bulgari’s creations, or, as the chief executive described them: “Serpenti past, present and prototypes for the future.” (And it all is scented with a new fragrance, Rainforest Serpenti.)
After the show closes in London, it is scheduled to visit 40 locations around the world.
Bulgari also intends to introduce anniversary products periodically throughout 2023. “There will be new Serpenti jewelry, bags — it will be across the board,” Mr. Babin said, with prices expected to range from 300 euros ($308) for a key holder to €3 million or more for some of the jewelry. “We will push our creativity further,” Mr. Babin added. “There will be more Serpenti high jewelry than ever. And lots of watches.”
Some of that creativity was rewarded last month when one of the four versions of the Serpenti Misteriosi watch won the Jewelry category at the Grand Prix D’Horlogerie de Genève, the annual industry event. The rose gold timepiece was accented with turquoise, brilliant-cut diamonds and rubellite “eyes” ($228,000).
But Mr. Babin, who was in Geneva to attend the awards, said his pride at the accolade really stemmed from the technology that powers the watch: “We created the smallest round mechanical watch movement ever, to slide into the mouth of the snake.”
Serpenti watches had been powered by quartz movements purchased from watchmakers such as Vacheron Constantin and Jaeger-LeCoultre, but when the Misteriosi watches were unveiled in January, they featured the new Piccolissimo movement (in English, “very small”), just 2.5 millimeters thick.
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The Birth of Serpenti
The house’s founder was a Greek émigré to Italy named Sotirios Voulgaris, who Italianized his name to Bulgari and opened the business in 1884 in Rome.
It is believed that one of his sons, Giorgio or Constantino Bulgari, designed the first Serpenti in 1948, placing a watch on a flexible metal link bracelet that the house called Tubogas.
(Mr. Babin said the sons were the first to put the letter V, rather than U, in the Bulgari logo, for a 1934 renovation of the flagship store in Rome — a nod to Latin usage and, he wrote in a later email, “a way to immediately convey the strong link with the city that welcomed the founder.” )
By 1955, the Serpenti watch dial was being hidden in the serpent’s mouth, a style that the industry calls a “secret watch.” And in 2010, “the Serpenti Tubogas as we know it today, with the recognizable shape of the snake’s head, was introduced,” according to Fabrizio Buonamassa Stigliani, the house’s executive director of product creation.
Bulgari was quick to adapt the Serpenti to other jewelry. “They were popular in the 1960s,” said Marion Fasel, founder of The Adventurine jewelry site and author of the 2013 book “Bvlgari: Serpenti Collection.” “Diana Vreeland got the Serpenti into the pages of Vogue so many times.”
“The Serpenti fits the overall spirit of Bulgari,” she said, “an iconoclastic brand breaking all the rules and being daring.”
Elizabeth Taylor also played a starring role in Serpenti’s initial popularity.
In 1962 while filming “Cleopatra” at Cinecittà, the movie studio in Rome, Ms. Taylor bought a Serpenti watch in Bulgari’s boutique in Rome, Mr. Buonamassa Stigliani said. The actress was married to Eddie Fisher but romantically linked with Richard Burton, her co-star — a scandal that fueled the public’s awareness of Bulgari and its snake.
Mr. Babin credited Cinecittà “and all the great movies” of the 1960s Dolce Vita era with bringing visibility to Bulgari, which previously had been viewed as just a Roman jeweler. “They were vital to Bulgari, to the world discovering the brand and the beautiful bracelet,” he said. “Sophia Loren, Anna Magnani and Gina Lollobrigida were other legendary actresses who loved Serpenti. They became our ambassadors.
“Today they would be paid,” he added, “but in those times, they paid Bulgari and bought their own jewelry.”
Bulgari now has actors like Zendaya, Anne Hathaway, Shawn Mendes and Shu Qi promote its jewelry in advertising or, Mr. Babin said, “we lend them jewelry for the red carpet.”
It is such celebrity appearances that have helped cement the snake as Bulgari’s own. “Once you have it shown on celebrities, it becomes a signature piece. It’s yours,” said Kristian Spofforth, head of jewelry at Sotheby’s London.
The Snake, Ubiquitous
“Snakes have always been popular in jewelry,” said Mr. Spofforth, who noted the ancient symbolism of the serpent motif in jewelry, including “ouroboros,” the circular symbol of a snake devouring its tail and being reborn. For Mr. Buonamassa Stigliani, “the snake embodies rebirth, fertility, eternity, even sin,” as in the Garden of Eden. And Mr. Babin observed that it has appeared “in every culture and century.”
Indeed, the snake appeared in Aztec artifacts, predating Roman and Greek cultures, Alba Cappellieri, president of the Milan Fashion Institute, pointed out in her 2021 book “Bvlgari Serpenti: The Power of Metamorphosis.”
“Like a snake, Bulgari sheds its skin,” said Judith Price, president of the National Jewelry Institute, a nonprofit organization based in New York City — referring to the way the house has adapted its designs, including the Serpenti, to maintain its success.
Ms. Fasel echoed that observation, noting that “no other house has quite played with their icon the way Bulgari has.”
And the pieces that resulted, Mr. Spofforth said, have ranged from a necklace with more than 200 carats of diamonds that sold for millions of dollars at a Sotheby’s auction in April 2019 to “tiny little snake rings you can buy for a few thousand dollars” (or less — Serpenti Viper rings, reintroduced in 2009, start at $1,400.)
In 2008, small leather goods with the Serpenti motif were introduced; in 2009, eyewear; and in 2011, handbags. The snake even appears in the bathrooms of the Bulgari Hôtel Paris, etched into a glass panel so “the snake is watching you,” Mr. Babin said. “Serpenti has gone from niche to mainstream.”
Bulgari’s owner, the luxury giant LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, does not break out earnings by brand, but LVMH’s report for the first half of 2022 did acknowledge that Serpenti and the B.Zero1 Classic line “were important growth drivers.”
And that growth is prompting Bulgari to double the production capacity of its factory in Valenza, Italy, a five-year-old 150,000-square-foot facility that is already considered one of Europe’s largest factories of its kind and where much of the Serpenti jewelry is made. When the renovation is completed, scheduled for late 2024, the factory is to total 344,500 square feet, or almost eight acres, over three levels.
In Bulgari’s haute collections, however, the Serpenti has become more than just a piece of jewelry or a watch. “It’s no longer just a bracelet slithering up the arm to make the wearer more attractive,” Ms. Price said. “It’s a piece of sculpture.”
Fabienne Lupo, the former chairwoman of the Fondation de la Haute Horologerie and now founder of the sales event ReLuxury, said the house’s watches also qualify. “Beyond telling the time,” she said, “these pieces are true works of art of extreme know-how and refinement.”
That aspect of Serpenti as art also will be part of the design’s anniversary celebration. During several of the stops scheduled for Mr. Anadol’s digital creation and the Serpenti display, work by local artists will be exhibited, too. “They have free rein” on what they create, Mr. Babin said, “but it has to relate to the snake.”
Bulgari actually has other signature designs, including its Monete collection, inspired by ancient Roman coins, and the Divas’ Dream scallops modeled after the tiles of Rome’s Caracalla Baths.
But industry experts agree that Serpenti remains its most identifiable motif and, Mr. Babin said, for decades it has been “instantly recognizable” as a Bulgari design.
As Ms. Fasel said, aware of the irony: “Bulgari’s Serpenti has legs.”