Near midnight in a quiet passageway in Rome’s Palazzo Núñez-Torlonia, I was nursing my last cocktail, when a contingent of bodyguards in sharply tailored suits scurried past.
The lady in the entourage’s centre reached out to touch my arm and held my gaze as she brushed by.
Startling, yes, but the voice was apologetic enough to be disarming. She uttered one word, but her gentle blue eyes nuanced much more: So sorry, but I really need to escape the paparazzi closing in from behind us.
The face was familiar and I’d seen it countless times on the arm of a former French president.
Holy Vatican and the Immaculate Apostles! — I’d just road-blocked...
But how can this not be expected?
This is, after all, the finale night of the 130th anniversary fete of Bulgari, Italy’s most reputed jeweller to European monarchy, fashion royalty and Hollywood A-listers.
Bruni, together with stars Adrien Brody and Shu Qi, were flown in to inauguarate the reopening of the renovated flagship along the historical street on which founder Sotirio Bulgari (nee Sotirios Boulgaris, of Greek descent) first opened his doors for business in 1884.
Along the luxury mile that is Via dei Condotti, the new store — flanked by Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Dior (with Damiani and Cartier across) — is redesigned by Peter Marino and completed in just seven months, albeit at a sky-high cost (“millions and millions of euros” was all its CEO Jean-Christophe Babin will divulge).
The flagship is itself a sparkling jewel, one that is astutely engineered to elevate the brand higher in terms of prestige (see side story). And rightfully so. After all, when you have over a century’s worth of brand content to deal with, a lot needs to be done to keep itself relevant in today’s highly varied luxury consumer market.
Besides a global retail strategy — its latest crowning jewel will be its Singapore outpost at Marina Bay Sands, which opens this month — the brand will also refocus on its core values.
“Jewellery is at the heart of the brand’s creativity,” says Vice-President Sabina Belli, who oversees its branding and communications worldwide. And this will continue to translate more effectively across its various divisions.
For instance, the high jewellery Diva line (of which Bruni is the campaign model) will later become a more mainstream jewellery line, retailing from €1,500 ($2,600) upwards, says Babin. This takes the cue from the Serpenti, a blockbuster leitmotif from Bulgari’s high jewellery vaults that has successfully translated across timepieces and accessories (including bags and eyewear).
Another product focus this year onward will be on ladies’ timepieces.
“This is a logical consequence,” Babin explains to Prestige at the grand opening. “If you are a master jeweller, then you should also be a major player in ladies’ watches.” This includes jewellery watches with complication movements as well, he says. (Ed’s note: A week later at Baselworld, Bulgari would have launched the Il Giardino Marino, a jewellery watch with a tourbillon that echoes the Il Giardino Tropicale launched last year).
And what about the Asian market, which by now should be any luxury brand’s hotspot for new growth?
Belli hopes to engage with them at a differentiated but intelligent level: “Asian consumers are extremely knowledgeable about jewellery and are becoming serious collectors. They now see it as a form of luxury holding, along with contemporary art and cars, so we have to be able to compete at that level as well.” The challenge for her is to ensure that the value of its bejewelled products continue to be a “great payback on investments” and to multiply through the years, ie selling back at auctions, or otherwise.
The question of how something can endure the caprice of time is of course one that any centuries-old brand needs to answer at some point.
But how can longevity be achieved? Bulgari, it seems, has found its own fountain of youth.
Earlier in the day, it had announced at a press conference that it will be donating €1.5 million to restore the Spanish Steps to their former glory. The Steps hold significant memory to the brand’s history, as Sotirio had traversed it every day from his first store at Via Sistina 85 to his second one at Via dei Condotti. The last major restoration to the Steps was in 1995 and now with this infusion of funds, it will be restored in just two years. As Babin tells it, this will be “instrumental to the glory of Rome”.
“The Steps is the largest steps existing in Europe and one of the most dramatic sights in Roma,” he says. “As with all of its ancient monuments, it has an emotional dimension to it.”
Indeed, what makes the Eternal City that is Rome truly eternal?
Or shall we ask, whose heart does not skip a beat at the sight of the majestic Castel Sant’Angelo? Or the Coliseum, or the Trevi Fountain? Is it the beautiful melding of the ancient with the contemporary? Does a city only truly come alive because the richness of the past is in the palpability of the present?
The test of a true luxury brand will lie in its ability to become timeless and how else to be more eternal than to marry itself with one of the Eternal City’s living jewels?
“Being 130 means this brand has a past, but we are also a brand that is able to project itself into the future,” says Belli. “We are 130-years, but we’re never old.”
Of a certain age and still not aged? That could only mean something is immortal.
ANATOMY OF A FLAGSHIP
The Via dei Condotti 10 store is a study in fine elegant retailing, refurbished to endure as a timeless Roman legend, says Bulgari’s Watch Advisor Paolo Piaitelli. He guides us through its doors, room by room
Vestibule & Promenade In these central spaces, Marino has made it more open with new arched skylights, with full extension in the rear Promenade section. White mosaic tiles, laid one-by-one by hand, are lit by natural sunlight. The original wooden vitrine display units (and everywhere else) from 1884 has been restored to showcase only the high jewellery collections.
Bridal Room The bridal segment is one that Bulgari is increasingly capitalising on for its Asia strategy, says Sabina Belli, worldwide vice-president of branding. Wedding and engagement bands (eg the Spiga lines) are found here. The blue Florentine clock is from the original 1884 store.
Silver Room Sotirio started as a silversmith and a lot of the vitrine shelves here used to display antique English silverware, which were later replaced with diamonds, from solitaires to full 2-ct cuts.
Watches Room Aka the Mens’ Room, this is made cosy with the choice of the green patina (the colour of aged English clocks) for the suede wallpaper. The most high-end watches sit in the tall standalone glass cases.
The Taylor Room Aka the Private Room, a nod to Elizabeth, one of its most famous clients. Here, VVIP clients (not wanting to be seen entering from the main street) come and go discreetly via a separate back entrance.
Ladies Room 1 & 2 One room holds all the watch and jewellery pieces valued from entry-points to medium-fine. The other carries all the medium to high jewellery pieces, such as the Sorrenti and Diva lines. Lighting can morph from warm to cold according to the mood of the current collections.
Accessories Room Situated right by the marble staircase, this is where the scarves and all leather goods can be found.