Backstage in the world of high jewellery at Bulgari
With eyes sparkling like the multi-coloured gems she is slipping out of the pouch, Lucia Silvestri smiles radiantly. “Can you feel the energy? The sound of these gemstones? I adore them, it’s my passion. I play around with them every day, and I systematically try on all the pieces made here. I have the best job in the house!” says the beautiful Roman, stroking the glittering mound of gems on the long, jewel-covered table.
Silvestri receives us in her bright office overlooking the river Tiber shimmering in the sunlight, on the fourth floor of the Bulgari headquarters in Rome. Thirty-eight years ago, Silvestri joined the renowned jeweller, owned by LVMH since 2011, to replace a secretary on maternity leave, and never left. She specialised as a rare gem buyer, and in 2013 she became Bulgari’s creative director.
Under her fingers, the heap of gems gradually morphs into a necklace, to which she adds three large crystals. “This is where our inspiration stems from,” she says, showing off her creation. “You must talk to the gems. Sometimes you look at them for hours. You take them and mix them up based on their size and colour.”
On a table littered with large, shimmering stones - mostly sapphires and emeralds worth “between €1,000 and €100,000 each” - the designer sketches other jewels, affixing different combinations of gems on a wax base, like a painter applying the first brush-strokes on a blank canvas.
In a corner of her office, covered in pictures and sketches of jewels and accessible only by way of a secret code, a security guard keeps watch discreetly. “When I joined in 1980, Bulgari only had five stores, as opposed to more than 300 now! In 30 years, the market has changed substantially. It’s harder and harder for us to find fine gems. They are rarer and more expensive, while customers have become much more sophisticated,” says Silvestri.
Bulgari is renowned for its very colourful high jewellery pieces, especially for its combinations of rare and semi-rare gems, with a predilection for cabochons, the maison’s signature trait. Bulgari was founded in 1884 in Rome by Greek jeweller Sotirios Bulgari, and has kept on growing in the last few years.
As ever, Bulgari sources gems from all over the world, searching for pink tourmaline in Mozambique, blue chalcedony in Namibia, or Indian sapphires from Ratanpur and Jaipur. And Sri Lanka’s imperial sapphires, whose blue colour shines even in the darkest night.
Walking out of the adjoining room, which serves as vault, Angelo Santini hands to Lucia Silvestri the latest batch: a tray of emeralds from Colombia. Santini has been a gemmologist since 1982, and a buyer at Bulgari since 1995, and works closely together with Silvestri.
“We know all the extraction sites, all the suppliers. Some of them sometimes reserve some rare stones for us, but never for long! We aren’t offered more than three, four major pieces each year. Sometimes, they cut the stones with us in mind,” says Santini, while Silvestri closely scrutinises each individual emerald.
“This one is a bit flat,” she says, setting aside a small green stone. She takes another one, rubs it with a soft cloth and places it between her fingers, like a ring, to better gauge the effect it makes. Then Lucia Silvestri looks at it more closely with a loupe, drawing nearer the window to benefit from the daylight. “There are gardens within emeralds, and fire inside rubies,” she whispers, smiling.
It is hard to unearth that one rare find, and each purchase is the result of intense negotiations. Once the gem combinations are sketched on the table, these subtle associations of stones, which will eventually be transformed into dream jewellery, are refined and drafted on paper by Silvestri’s team of seven designers.
Change in scenery. We are in an unspecified location somewhere on Rome’s northern ring road, the via Aurelia. An anonymous building, bearing neither name nor street number. Stuck in the middle of nowhere at the side of a ring road, with an opaque glass door and windows obscured by panels, the place seems uninhabited.
Yet, inside, it is a hive of activity, with 35 jewellers working on a collection that will be unveiled next year for some “top, top, top clients.” We are inside Bulgari’s high jewellery and prototype-making laboratory. It was opened in 2000, and last year it was enlarged, taking on 10 new jewellers, a number that is set grow even further, to reach 44 next year.
Entrance to the compound is strictly regulated, and you have to pass through several armoured doors. The visit is closely monitored, and we are accompanied by a security guard, under the watchful eye of the many surveillance cameras scattered around the building. The silence inside is broken occasionally by the metallic rattle of boards that vibrate on the floor as each person passes through the corridor, to wipe the soles of their shoes.
This laboratory is where the high jewellery sketches made by Lucia Silvestri’s team of designers end up, and where they come to life under the expert hands of craftsmen working in various stages: from the computer renderings showing the minutest details of the frames where the gems will be set, to the wax models that perfectly replicate the metal pieces in order to produce the plaster moulds in which gold, silver or other metals are melted, to the assembly, gem-setting and polishing stages.
The jewellers sit at workbenches equipped with tiny tools (tweezers, saws, files, sandpaper, etc.), wearing a white lab coat with the name ‘Bulgari’ embroidered on the top pocket and, through binocular loupes, they peer attentively at the design of the piece they are working on. They compare notes with the designer at the outset, and then it can take them up to five months to finish the jewel.
“If we realise, at any one of the stages in the process, that we aren’t on the right track and that what we have doesn’t correspond to the result expected, we stop everything and re-start from scratch,” says one of the managers, adding that “in Rome, only [Bulgari] produces this kind of jewellery with this level of sophistication.”
Bulgari makes here all of its prototypes and nearly 40% of its high jewellery pieces, about 200 unique Bulgari items per year out of a total of 500. The rest are made by an external network of trusted jewellers. Also, for some of the pieces, only the initial batch is made in Rome’s high jewellery laboratory. This first batch is then handed over for the industrialisation phase to the huge manufacturing facility Bulgari opened last year in Valenza, Piedmont, with the objective of “preserving an artisanal approach within an industrialised process.”
This approach is one of the keys to Bulgari doubling its revenue in five years, growing from €1 billion to €2 billion between 2011 and 2016. The group continues to post explosive growth results, and has very ambitious plans still. By the end of 2018, it will be operating 333 stores worldwide, and plans to reach 363 by 2021.
To discover the oldest and the most recent Bulgari stores, the LVMH group will open its door to its ‘Private Days’ initiative in Rome on October 12, 13 and 14. For the occasion, Bulgari will stage a series of events at its historic store on the prestigious via dei Condotti, opposite the legendary Antico Caffè Greco coffee house, near Piazza di Spagna. The store was opened in 1905 and renovated in 2014 by celebrity architect Peter Marino, and adjacent to it now sits Bulgari’s New Curiosity Shop, recently inaugurated and featuring a new retail concept big on high tech and digital images, to attract a younger clientèle. First and foremost, in both visitors will be able to take a close peek at the scintillating dreams concocted by Bulgari.
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