Hubert Burda Media

Serpentis Are Forever

A design collaboration with Zaha Hadid has given Bulgari the platform to indulge in a retrospective of its famous Serpenti.

It is the first day of Milan Design Week and the Italian city is abuzz with activity. Salone del Mobile is in full swing over at Fiera Milano in Rho, while all across the city centre boutiques and galleries are hosting their own showcases that celebrate creativity in all its manifestations.

One of the must-visit stops for those on the design trail is Bulgari Hotel Milan, where, as if slithering across its lush garden is an imposing white installation. Measuring 20m in length and 3m in height, the sweeping geometric form is quite a sight. The creation of Pritzker Prize-winning architect Zaha Hadid, it takes inspiration from the iconic Bulgari serpenti motif, and was originally commissioned by the jeweller for its 2011 pavilion at the Abu Dhabi Art Fair.

With her evocative installation marking its first public re-appearance since then, Hadid was in attendance at the Bulgari-hosted opening reception attended by the likes of its CEO Jean-Christophe Babin and other notable Milan Design Week regulars, including architect-designers Philippe Starck and Antonio Citterio.

Speaking to Prestige, Hadid says that taking on the project was a natural move. The London-based Iraqi architect has always had an interest in jewellery, and a particular affinity to those with abstract designs. Furthermore, she was given absolute creative freedom by the brand.

“My interpretation of the snake is not very literal. I like that the installation can be interpreted in a few ways, such as the scales of a snake or even a honeycomb,” says Hadid, who today sports a Serpenti bracelet on her wrist. “But people do ask me — why are there no straight lines, why no 90-degree angles in your work? This is because even nature is not even or regular. And people find this philosophy to be very inspirational and uplifting,” she adds.

Made from milled high-density polyurethane and comprising 21 parts and three floating plinths, it also contains glass vitrines, which showcase pieces from the Serpenti family. These include key heritage pieces that date back to the 1960s as well as pieces from its current collection.

“It was logical to show here as it is the design capital of the world. And what Zaha created is a form of art, what better time to show it again, if not Milan Design Week?” says Babin. “Furthermore we have a new addition to the Serpenti collection. That’s what I call a holy trinity of reasons,” he says with a laugh.

First seen in the 1940s, the Serpenti is found in almost all of Bulgari’s product categories ranging from jewellery to leather goods, but because of its coiling form, is mainly expressed in its bracelets and watches made in the tubogas technique. This production method involves wrapping two long gold strips with raised edges around a core that’s either made of copper or wood. By doing this, its edges interlock producing a continuous unsoldered piece. After which, the core is then discarded or dissolved in acid.

Chosen with the help of brand and heritage curator Lucia Boscaini, a number of the pieces on display date to the 1960s, which unlike its early predecessors showcase a more realistic interpretation with life-like scales handcrafted from sheets of gold. For watches, dials are concealed in the serpent’s head, only coming into view when its mouth is flipped open, while enamelled Serpentis mark the beginning of Bulgari’s long-standing love affair with colour. In the 1970s, ornate designs gave way to more streamlined versions, with Bulgari creating Serpenti watches that featured a bold brickwork pattern of gold. The 1980s heralded an appetite again for pieces featuring logos and stunning gems.

“These items here show you clearly the evolution of the Serpenti style,” says Babin, as he walks us over to one of the displays. “We go to great lengths to protect our heritage but we also acknowledge the need to be contemporary.”

Sitting in their vitrines at the very start of the installation are pieces from Bulgari’s latest 2015 Serpenti collection, which Babin insists I study. The star piece is the Serpenti tubogas necklace in pink gold with pavé-set diamonds (totalling 3.20ct) on its head and tail. Perfectly sinuous when unfastened, it could well mimic the movement of a snake. The new collection also includes a bracelet and a ring.

“We have books and ideas and always look forward to outdoing ourselves. We do not rest on our laurels. That is the Bulgari culture,” Babin stresses.

Once the fairy dust of Milan Design Week settles, the heritage pieces will return to its vault at the brand’s Rome headquarters.

But what then happens to the structure, I ask? Boscaini reveals that it will find its rightful place — perhaps in a museum, an art gallery or one of the brand’s upcoming hotels. “For now, it is undecided but one thing’s for sure, it will remain with us for a long time to come.”