The way that people fall in love with pieces is affect in these times; the way they spend is heightened or stifled; they’re happy, enraged or in times of war, perhaps bereaved and as such, disinterested. But even in the worst of times, something is brewing; and while we may not notice it in the moment, the world will celebrate its crucial nature in future days.
Sometimes future days are nearly a half-century in the making. On view through June 5, 2016 at NSU Art Museum of Fort Lauderdale, Bellissima: Italy and High Fashion 1945-1968 will explore such a time. The exhibition focuses on a remarkable period of post-World War II until 1968 when some of the most influential creative minds in Italian fashion were cultivated and in turn, forever altered Italy’s role in high fashion, jewelry and the like. In a war torn time and suffering the effects of a matching economy, special financial investments were made to revitalize industry in Italy; and given that the arts played such a crucial role in their cultural history, a focus was placed on producing luxury creations that would be both job-producing for skilled craftsmen and practical in their uses.
“This moment in history laid the foundation for Italy’s future,” said Stefano Tonchi, Editor-in-Chief of W magazine. “That time was grounded in a strong sense of reality: They were luxury creations, but nonetheless practical…this awareness of reality created an opportunity for a fashion system that truly served its patrons, with garments designed for the life of the modern woman.”
One-of-a-kind jewels from the Bulgari Heritage Collections, part of the exhibition since its inception at the MAXXI: National Museum of the XXI Century Arts in Rome, will showcase the brand’s innovation and experimentation during this key period and its particular role in establishing Italy as an international fashion capital. Among the pieces on loan for the exhibition by private collectors are iconic Serpenti creations and necklaces from the 1960’s. Unique to NSU Art Museum is the loan of the diamond pendant earrings once owned by actress Elizabeth Taylor, who was one of the Hollywood stars key to expanding the allure of Italian style worldwide.
Bonnie Clearwater, NSU Art Museum Director and Chief Curator notes, “The exhibition captures the vibrant spirit of creativity in art, fashion and entrepreneurship that is the foundation of Italy today. The story of Italy’s rebuilding after World War II is also an essential part of America’s history, and the decades represented in Bellissima underscore the museum’s special focus on these postwar years, making it an ideal exhibition for our community as we celebrate a 30th anniversary.” An interesting observation given the role Clearwater has played as an influential leader in the arts during our time, not only in Miami’s development as a hub for international art and artists, but also nationally and internationally. At NSU Art Museum, her initiatives have included the development of a world-class exhibition program, expansion of the museum’s education initiatives and public programming, and increased engagement with diverse audiences. She’s also known for her keen eye for emerging talents. Over some twenty years, she has presented the first U.S. solo exhibitions for some of the most relevant artists currently, including but not limited to Daniel Arsham who graced the pages of TFB issue 5.
Recently, during his visit to inaugurate the exhibition, Toys for Boys caught up with Bulgari’s global CEO, Jean-Christophe Babin to hear more about the brand’s role not only in the exhibition but how the high-jewelry house changed the face of jewelry design in that time and how they continue to break boundaries even today.
TFB: One of the most crucial and cementing elements of this exhibition is time: Can you tell me about what approaches Bulgari implemented over that time that were unique and played a role in its position in the market?
JCB: The time post-war was very influential in Italy in the sense that before the war there were a lot of influences coming from Paris but after the war Italy really reinvented the way that things were done, thus departing from that French style. So for example using not only white gold and platinum but yellow gold as well which really changed jewelry over night from something considered solely for use in the evening to something much more versatile. It was also a time for new cuts like the cabochon, which also made pieces more informal, approachable and wearable. It was the really foundation of a new kind of luxury in an Italian style.
TFB: Tell me about the heritage collections included in the exhibition and what exactly that includes?
JCB: 800 masterpieces which trace back to the very foundation of the company in 1894, mostly acquired in auctions or through former clients of Bulgari. So it’s really something that’s ever growing and it’s the way that we are able to really have these exhibitions like Bellissima all over the world. Jewelry is very emotional so sometimes it’s hard to buy back pieces from people of the first generation of ownership because generally they were purchased for very special occasions but some 2 or 3 generations later, the value attributed in terms of sentimental may be less from the family members who have the pieces now. Especially for the right price: For example, we have purchased Serpenti watches where we have paid more than the price purchased in the 40’s or 50’s even as adjusted by inflation. Financially it’s a very good move for the owners and while for Bulgari it’s expensive it allows us to build documentation of our history.
TFB: How does that acquisition process work?
JCB Often times we will advertise pieces that we are looking to buy back because we still have the design in our archive for example and would like to have the complete set. Ideally you want the design, the masterpiece and the invoice. This is really the beauty.
TFB: What, besides Serpenti, are some of the collections considered heritage that remain iconic and globally recognized parts of the brand?
JCB: The Liz Taylor collection which we acquired 5 years ago was the most expensive we have ever purchased as a single collection at around $8 million but it was really worth it for the amazing gems; some of which you can’t even find any longer and secondly because of her connection to our flagship store in Roma which is so connected to the emotion of buying Bulgari even today.
TFB: What would you say is the importance of fluidity and movement in Bulgari pieces like the sponging of the B.Zero ring or the flexibility of the Serpenti watch?
JCB: As a jeweler you are sensitive to making something that’s not only beautiful in design but also sensual when you wear it. We want pieces to have a soft impact on the skin and despite the heavy metals that we use—we want to deliver that sensuality together with the beauty.
TFB: What else besides the use of yellow gold or the cabochon cut are signature Bulgari?
JCB: Color combinations for sure; like a green stone with orange instead of blue, for example, it’s about something that you wouldn’t expect.
TFB: The time period being represented in the exhibition was one that really marked international success for Bulgari even though the brand was already 60 years old. Why do you think that is?
JCB: Besides the new offerings that came in the wake of French-inspired pieces like the yellow gold and the stone combinations, it also had a lot to do with the fact that at the time, Rome was the Hollywood of the Tiber river and at that time our flagship store—the only one outside of the French Riviera—was on Via Condotti. So many actors and producers were there at the time, and in their time off they would come by to discover Bulgari, which was so innovative compared to what they knew. They would buy it and take it to the U.S. and this is how we became global. There was no advertising at the time—they were our first true ambassadors of the brand. And it worked extraordinarily well because at that time part of the pride of discovering something unusual and beautiful was sharing it by word of mouth.
TFB: As a brand grows so does the cross-section of people who want to be a part of it. Tell us about the role that accessories and smaller goods play to make that easier for most?
JCB: The high jewelry is where we have the most expertise and it surely shapes our image and is our core but as a consequence ladies watches and bags are interesting for the company as they are dictated in style by the jewelry. At the time it’s attracting people to Bulgari who had initially not started with a jewel, but buy the bag and then years later come back for the jewels. Sunglasses are also broader because the price point is more accessible even though around $300 they are still quite premium.
TFB: You come from a watch background, what it’s like being watch makers in a high jewelry house given the competitiveness of the watch market?
JCB: We are very lucky to be a jeweler because that’s never been a mainstream obsession from Swiss watchmakers as they are primarily pure players…they were born in watches and a lot of them craft only watches. It’s also a very masculine business and they have focused far more on the men’s segment, which is indeed extremely competitive. In terms of the ladies’ watch market most of the brands simply offer a reduction in scale of a man’s watch. Obviously Bulgari and some of the other big names in jewelry which have developed very specific ladies’ watches inspired by jewelry, which is great because they really feel that it’s a watch for them and not their husband’s watch shrunken for them. We also craft men’s watches while trying always to depart from the classical standard. The best example is probably Octo, which is an octagonal watch while the mainstream market is really about round watches—we aim to offer something new for our clients. And we would like for them to take the design inspiration with them as well. In the case of Octo it is inspired by the Roman Massentius Basilica.
TFB: Walk us through the hotel part of the brand and how it acts as an extension of the lifestyle.
JCB: The hotels are very interesting in that we entered into hotels believing that luxury should be experiential. We had so many boutiques and we believe that they are not only about the product but also about the brand experience; we knew that better understanding the hotel business would allow us to eventually be better at service and experience, therefore at retailing. The hotels were born from the idea of becoming the best jewelry retailer in the world in terms of experience. We started with three and plan to open three more next year which in Dubai, Beijing and Shanghai, followed by another three or four before 2019. We are convinced that it’s really an incredible platform for the brand in terms of what it stands for as more than a boutique, conveying one style and one experience. From the lobby, to the restaurant, to the spa, you can express one DNA. And for us its really important for our competitors direct or indirect to have this statement of Italian elegance and casual lifestyle which fits very well with Bulgari and it’s wearability in terms of image but also in terms of organizing events…it’s a privilege to organize a high jewelry evening and welcome our guests in our own hotel in terms of emotion and in terms of sense of belonging to a very exclusive tribe—it makes a much stronger point.
TFB: Do you think the U.S. will be a hotel market for you in the near future?
JCB: In the U.S. it’s not about how fast we find a location but rather how good the location is. It’s a very competitive market and we want to stick to our business model of an upper level boutique hotel, keeping in-step with having the amenities of a classic five-star hotel, but keeping the intimacy and exclusivity of a very small boutique hotel. It’s a delicate situation because you have to sell each room at a very high average daily rate, which is why we prefer waiting in some instances until we are convinced that we have the right location. We have studied many projects in New York, Miami, LA, etc., but have not yet chosen a location that will allow our financial equation to work.
TFB: What’s it like working with Peter Marino on the retail revamping?
JCB: When we first met Peter in early 2013 he instantly understood that we wanted to stress our Roman origins which is something extremely rich because no other luxury brand has such an artistic and historical background in Rome. He also really understood that how we were using this as inspiration in the design of our jewelry: B.Zero, for instance might remind you of the Colosseum and the Diva collection can immediately take you to the mosaics of Caracalla; he just got the point perfectly and worked to come up with something that would pay justice to those designs in a way that like our products would be about magnificent materials. Today we have 300 boutiques worldwide in most of the luxury cities but we continue to revamp our flagships with Peter to elevate them to the new level of emotion and sophistication that we have developed with him.