by Sura Wood
All that glitters is Bulgari in a new show guaranteed to bring out your inner materialist. The Art of Bulgari: La Dolce Vita & Beyond, 1950-1990, now at the de Young Museum, showcases 145 pieces representing four decades of luxury creations from the family-owned business founded in Rome in 1884 by the Greek-born Sotirios Voulgaris. The flagship shop he opened on the Via dei Condotti in 1905 became a magnet for film stars from Sophia Loren, Ingrid Bergman and Virna Lisi to Gina Lollobrigida and, especially, Elizabeth Taylor, who was akin to a patron saint of the jewelry house. "The only word Liz knows in Italian is Bulgari," Richard Burton once said. And, pray tell, what other word did she need to know? Burton would fork over an amount equivalent to the budget of a small Latin American country to delight the breathtaking love of his life during their tempestuous relationship. Taylor looks nothing short of fabulous circa 1962 in a photo taken on the set of Cleopatra, a costly epic partially shot in Rome. She wears Bulgari's signature serpentine watch coiled multiple times around her slender wrist. Several watches are on view, including a lust-worthy gold one that has a profusion of diamonds and a dazzling ruby on its head; emerald specks denote reptilian eyes.
A gallery devoted to the actress' collection shows off a platinum, emerald and diamond necklace with detachable brooch; it was the first piece Burton bought for her and the beginning of a mutually beneficial relationship with Bulgari that outlasted many of her eight marriages. She later auctioned it off, a portion of the proceeds benefiting her AIDS foundation. It and a stunning matching ring are flanked by two brooches from outgoing spouse Eddie Fisher. In this race, it's clear he didn't have a chance. Taylor lived large, collecting husbands and jewelry with equal relish; in retrospect, she may have gotten more bang for the buck from the latter than from the former. Another gift from Burton and one of the show's most spectacular pieces is a platinum sautoir (long necklace). Fit for a tribal queen with its brilliant, deep blue-black, 57-carat Burmese sapphire pendant and a chain flecked with diamonds and bits of sapphires, it radiates mystery and power. Numerous photographs of Taylor here are a reminder that although she craved the jewels, her ravishing beauty was of such magnitude that she needed less adornment than mere mortals.
With a design aesthetic influenced by Renaissance art and the 19th-century Roman school, Bulgari made its mark by departing from traditional settings, introducing informality to evening wear and moving from platinum to yellow gold. They're also noted for their use of bright colors, which FAMSF board president Dede Wilsey calls "candy without the calories." (Wilsey lent her white diamond flower brooch with a yellow diamond center.) Another trademark is the mixing of semi-precious and precious gemstones of varying quality. Some of these combos fare better than others, like a beautifully shaped, perfectly balanced gold bib necklace with diamonds and cabochon stones of amethyst, emerald and turquoise; the matching pendant earrings, echoing the graceful curves of the necklace, are sensational. The set, made in the 1960s, was owned by the late Lyn Revson, former wife of the Revlon cosmetics poobah. Other pieces, blending turquoise and diamonds, for instance, look like costume jewelry.
The emeralds on view, most of them mined in Colombia, are awe-inspiring like the staggering 300-carat specimen screaming its name in a pendant hanging from a long gold chain. The appropriately named "7 Wonders" necklace has big chunks adding up to 118 carats worth of stones in diamond encrusted settings. Owned by the wife of a wealthy Italian industrialist who once described her profession as "lady of leisure," it has been worn by screen sirens such as Lollobrigida and Monica Vitti. While a major part of Bulgari's success lies in the reflected glory and patronage of the rich and famous, the show relies too heavily on the celebrity connections, particularly in the video components where we see the objects and then, through the magic of digital, the beautiful women who wore them.
Glamorously displayed in free-standing gleaming black cases as they might be in a boutique, the jewels are stars in their own solar systems; surrounded by filtered glass, they sparkle in a pool of light from above and reflected luminescence from shiny sand granules below. The installation is tight, and maneuvering around the cases is difficult if there's a crush of visitors in the galleries. In contrast to the general atmosphere of refinement is a tacky section featuring large garish medallions with an ancient coin motif that Elvis Presley might have coveted. In one vitrine, digital coins rain down accompanied by the sound of money. Viva Las Vegas.
Promoted as an exhibition focusing on the art, innovative design and craftsmanship of the Italian jewelry dynasty, the show is just as much or more about getting a glimpse of how the other half – now only 1% – lives. There's no denying these shows are catnip for a segment of the museumgoing public, the "be well, prosper and get your bling fix on" crowd. After all, how can ogling expensive baubles that look so good be wrong? (Through Feb. 17.)