BVLGARI: Greece to Global in 100 Years

BVLGARI, the Italian international jewelry, luxury goods and fragrance firm, is the jewel in the Crown Building, on the southwest corner of New York’s Fifth Avenue and 57th Street. Across from Bvlgari on opposite corners, Tiffany & Co. and Van Cleef & Arpels, venerated jewelers to the rich and royal, cast raised eyebrows in the direction of the Roman neighbor who moved into 730 Fifth Avenue 10 years ago. A few blocks down Fifth Avenue, Cartier and Harry Winston, the famous “King of Diamonds,” glanced furtively up the Avenue at the on-again, off-again plastic construction wraps concealing a prize piece of New York real estate.

But Old Guard scrutiny did not intimidate the newcomer. At an opening of the first Bvlgari shop in London in 1988 (there are now three), company vice-chairman Nicola Bulgari commented, “You must be very humble in life and realize that it takes time to be recognized. We have been in America for 20 years and it still feels as though we landed there last night! It is a continent with 250 million people; how can they know you, especially with a company called Tiffany opposite?”

Good question. An even more provocative one is: how has Bvlgari, a firm once known primarily to the elite who buy extravagantly costly jewelry, become a luxury empire? When I first became acquainted with Bvlgari, they had four outlets: the flagship store in Rome, the Hotel Pierre boutique in New York and shops in Geneva and Monte Carlo. Today there are 64 Bvlgari outlets around the globe, 13 of which are in the U.S. By the end of the millennium, their plan is to have 70 branches worldwide.

There is nothing humble about Nicola Bulgari’s aspirations. Recently he remarked that by the year 2000 Bvlgari wants to be the most important jeweler in the world. Bvlgari was the Tiffany of Italy from the turn of the century through the 1920s and 1930s. Magnificent pieces reflecting the Greek and Roman heritage of the Bulgari family could be found in its elegant store at No. 10 via Condotti. The book The Great Shops of Europe described Bvlgari, with its marble, mirrors, mahogany cases and sparkling chandeliers, as “a gem, in every sense of the word.” It was also a plus to have three handsome twenty-something Bulgaris: Paolo, Gianni and Nicola, all resembling Italian film stars-cum-Greek gods, working for the firm. After WWII, word about the Roman shop’s exotic jewelry spread among fashionable travelers.

Bvlgari was well-known in Rome, but Rome was not New York. In the early 1970s, Italian companies such as Valentino, Roberta

di Camerino, Ferragamo, Buccellati, Rizzoli, Ginori and Gucci crossed the Atlantic like Roman Legions, to “take Manhattan.” They marched up and down Fifth and Madison Avenues, deploying into side streets and gobbling up real estate like tortellini. These attractive, lively designers and merchants brought with them a veritable antipasti of fine Italian goods – clothing, shoes, handbags, luggage, jewelry, books, china and linens. New Yorkers fell in love. Yankees clambered to beat down the doors that were often locked midday while the Italians enjoyed their traditional leisurely lunch.

Bvlgari opened a discreet boutique in the Pierre Hotel on Fifth Avenue at 60th Street in 1970. There was no rush to join the mainstream Fifth Avenue crowd. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day. But in 1989, the firm finally landed on the Big Apple’s most coveted corner: 57th and Fifth. Reconstruction began on the 1924 skyscraper. After months of being shrouded from view, the ground floor and first level were unveiled, revealing a structure enveloped in enormous sheets of glass and 250 tons of Botticino and Rosa Asiago marble.

The design and structure made a contemporary architectural statement with overtones of ancient Rome and classical Greece, but the effect was somewhat intimidating. It was impossible to see the interior from the street. Clients were buzzed through the imposing façade by unseen guards. Muted colors inside provided a background for showing the vibrant, bold jewelry in styles that were – in the words of the cognoscenti – “très BVLGARI!” To the average New Yorker or passerby, the Bvlgari corner was, in a word, different.

A great deal about the Bulgari family and the company has been different. For one thing, the founder of this Italian firm was Greek. Sotirio Boulgaris, a silversmith, fled to Corfu around 1870, during the Turkish massacres. He made his way to Rome, where he fashioned silver buckles at night. He sold them by day from a bancarella, a rolling cart, at the top of the Spanish Steps.

In 1881 Sotirio went into partnership with a Greek sponge merchant, displaying his silver pieces among the sponges in their Via Sistina shop, near the present site of the Hassler Hotel. Hard work paid off. In 1905 Sotirio and his teenage sons, Constantino and Giorgio, moved down the Steps to a shop on the chic Via Condotti. In a gesture that was indeed different, a large sign with Dickens’ title, “Old Curiosity Shop,” was placed across the front of the store. The idea was to attract wealthy British and American tourists. Bvlgari has been doing that successfully ever since.

At this same time, the name Boulgaris was Italianized to Bulgari. In the 1930s, Sotirio’s sons Romanized the name in print, using the block capital letter “V” for “U,” as was often found in old Roman inscriptions. BVLGARI has become one of the most famous logos in the luxury market.

Early in 1997, the Fifth Avenue corner was again sealed in a mysterious cocoon until November, when the wrapping came off to reveal Bvlgari’s redesigned flagship store – ecco la! – a gift of superb design to New York. One can now see beyond shadowbox windows, where Bvlgari’s new lines of exquisite scarves, handbags, watches, neckties and Luxottica eyewear are displayed, into the masterfully crafted interior warmed by pinkish-orange pearwood and gray-white sycamore. The effect is hypnotic. Outsiders are drawn inside through a revolving door that is no longer locked, even during lunch. Passage into Bvlgari magic is no longer controlled by an invisible guard.

Once inside, shoppers are drawn to the fragrance corner by the gentle scent of Green Tea, Bvlgari’s unisex eau parfumée. BVLGARI pour Femme, with a jasmine tea base, and BVLGARI pour Homme, with a Darjeeling tea infusion, have just been joined by a new full-bodied fragrance called Black, and the Petit et Mama bath line for mother and child. The fragrance division, based in Switzerland, began five years ago with two people. Today it employs 100.

Bvlgari may have been the new kid on that Fifth Avenue block in the late Eighties, but it’s the Bulgari kids themselves who have confirmed très Bvlgari style and kept the company young and in sync with the meteoric changes in the luxury market. Third-generation Paolo is currently chairman. Nicola, who came alone to New York and launched Bvlgari in the U.S., is vice-chairman. Gianni is no longer active with the firm. Fourth-generation Francesco Trapani, son of Bulgari sister Lia, is the company CEO. Veronica Bulgari, Nicola’s daughter, is director of fragrances in the U.S., while her sister, Natalia, works in the shop in Rome where, according to her father, she is “learning the ropes.”

Family may be Bvlgari’s best weapon in the fierce competition of the global marketplace. In 1995, CEO Trapani, who graduated with honors from the University of Naples and completed business administration courses at New York University, oversaw the initial public offering of 35% of Bulgari stock on the Italian Stock Exchange and London’s SEAQ International. This capital infusion has made it possible for Bvlgari to expand and diversify with such speed.

The Roman Empire fell 15 centuries ago, but Roman influences on our language, literature, arts and architecture endure today. And if there’s one thing the Italians (and Greeks) do as well as art and design, it’s food. Instead of locking shoppers out during lunch, Bvlgari now sells lunch. The Bvlgari Café on the second level of the new Fifth Avenue shop is a meeting spot; a place to see or be seen. Shoppers can sip a glass of champagne or steamy cappucino, nibble on a pastry or savor a delicate sun-dried tomato mousse sandwich while contemplating a delicious jewelry purchase. After eating, fingers are tidied with the most elegant handy wipe in the world – Oshibori au thé vert – a chilled Bvlgari Green Tea Refreshing Towel.

Our table in the Café turns into a vortex when Nicola Bulgari appears. People are dispatched and return with books, clippings. Scarves are spread out. Veronica appears, with a large bottle of Black in its exotic black rubber casing on display. Fan Fan Li Riviere, a jewelry designer, is summoned. Fan Fan was born in China, where she studied architecture before coming to the U.S. to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology. The award-winning designer worked for Van Cleef & Arpels briefly before coming to Bvlgari. Fan Fan, so très Bvlgari, is just one more example of how global the firm has grown.