When it comes to the symbolism of the Bulgari Serpenti, there’s an allure as eternal as the drama which unfolded in the opening pages of the Book of Genesis. Chauvinists would talk about how Eve was tempted by a serpent but in essence, it’s Adam’s sin of acquiescence and not Eve’s. Biblically speaking, Eve was moved by emotionality and it becomes Adam’s transgression when his rationality fails to account, leading to the lapse in decision making.
Indeed, while the Genesis stories digress, the seduction of the Bulgari Serpenti draws a similar parallel. As a motif, it’s a symbol which transcends mythical and cultural boundaries, expanding as far as Middle Eastern Egyptian and Chinese cultures and throughout history, celebrities and royalty (and their equally love-lorn consorts/paramours) have been making similar decisions when it comes to the iconic Serpenti – that of lust, temptation and desire.
Serpenti: An Icon for Bulgari
Since 1884, Bulgari has been at the forefront of cultural appreciation; it is this inherent reverence to its Greco-Roman heritage that when combined with the sum collective artistic endeavours of different cultures around world which leads to the evolution of a brand that can be considered one of the pioneers of animal motif watch and jewellery crafts. More importantly, Bulgari answers a primal question, “Does one have to suffer uncomfortable accessories for fashion?” For Bulgari and their craftsmen, the answer is, “no.” Unmistakable wearability resulting from state-of-the-art goldsmith techniques create a mesmerising twirl of precious metal serpent accessories which by all accounts should be a pain to don and wear, but miraculously (by the work of mortal hands at that) isn’t.
The Serpent: an icon for history
Centuries before Elizabeth Taylor portrayed Cleopatra and served as one of Bulgari’s most famous recipients of Bulgari jewellery, the serpent was already an icon of great historical potency. Appropriated by Roman Emperor Tiberius as guardians; a discussion of everlasting life exemplified by Plato’s Ouroboros and most famously, by Egyptian Queen Cleopatra who was the pioneer of that multi-bracelet trend we embrace today, portrayed on canvas with multiple gold snake bracelets and her royal diadem – a gold cobra in a position of readiness , the Serpent was ever present in pan-European myths and legends, its archeological discovery in lands of epic heritage as Pompeii and Troy eventually led to the adoption of Hellenic snake style by Italian jewellers Giuliano and Castellani. It’s eventual popularity was all but inevitable at this point. By the 1800s, it wasn’t just Egyptian royalty but English and Russian blue bloods as well. That said, any negative implication from the aforementioned Biblical Genesis story was washed clean when Prince Albert proposed to England’s Queen Victoria with a serpent engagement ring.
Historically speaking, most of the illustrations from Bulgari’s 1930s archives have disintegrated, what remains do point to the brand’s increasing prowess when it came to expressing the serpent in art deco Retro style, combined with the widespread proliferation of mechanised society via industrialisation in the 1940s, the Bulgari Serpenti began to adopt the Steampunk or Machine Style leading to the first use of the Tubogas technique where the craftsmen ingeniously coiled the snake’s body and hid a watch in the head. The gravitas of such a bold design element is vindicated in the decades to follow, not just for its consumer popularity but the co-option by watchmaking luminaries like Vacheron Constantin and Jaeger-LeCoultre in the years to follow.
Bulgari Serpenti Tubogas Technique
Tubogas is a descriptive term given to variations of jewellery defined by the chain formed by interlocking gold strips wound tightly together like a hollow and flexible tubular “gas pipe”. Requiring no soldering, it was the kind of inventive genius predicated on necessity during World War II when vital components were directed for use in the manufacture of weapons of war rather than objets d’art. While Van Cleef & Arpels calls their version Passe Partout, the popularity of the style is associated with Bulgari when it permeated the brand so thoroughly that the Tubogas technique was found in everything from watches, bracelets, necklaces and rings.
Requiring specialist craft techniques, Bugari Tubogas jewellery involves wrapping two long gold strips with raised edges around a copper or wood core so that the edges interlock firmly but pliantly in one continuous form without any soldering. The core of copper or wood is that burned away or dissolved in acid, the result is remarkably flexible jewellery without unsightly joints and other “engineering blemishes”. By alternating all colours of gold and even embracing the use of grey steel, the chromatic range of Bulgari’s Tubogas collections enjoyed a myriad of variations suitable to all manner of tastes.
Real Cleopatra/Reel Cleopatra
If Queen Cleopatra is serpent jewellery’s most prominent royal advocate, Elizabeth Taylor is the Bugari Serpenti’s most prominent Hollywood royalty both as a customer and recipient (from a various suitors and paramours, the most famous of all – Richard Burton). Given that both Hollywood royals were married (to other people), Taylor’s Bulgari accessories are accompanied by drama as rich as her historical counterpart – a one-of-a-kind snake bracelet with a white gold spring body which coiled gently around the wrist for a perfect fit. As artisans became more proficient with the techniques, designers pushed the elegant two coil design into snakes of wonder with seven coils.
Each scale is rendered lovingly in detail using either tapered gold pentagons or precious stones. Eventually, snake heads and forked tongue reproductions made way for snake heads whose hinged jaws would open to reveal the dial of a famous watch from a legendary watchmaker in a variety of hands,hour indexes and finishes.
The artistic flair of the Bulgari Serpenti became increasingly extraordinary as the Italian maison began to draw muse from specific snake species and their unique coloration. From the Serpente del latte (or polychromatic milk snake) to the Serpente nasuto (long-nosed snake), the collection became easy brand icons by virtue of their chromatic charm – vivid plays of white, red, green, black, brown and even turquoise enamel scales. Yet, behind the glamour and allure of these objets d’art, Bulgari artisans laboured painstakingly. It requires rare technical talent to produced individually enamelled gold pentagon-shaped scales and then firing them at temperatures which would approach melting points of the base precious material, all while keeping them secured with tiny screws. The internal spring body then serves as the serpent’s real musculature and ribcage would, coiled precisely around a wrist or forearm with appropriate give – not too tight, not too loose, just right.
Serpenti: Bulgari Signature Style
The early 1970s so the rare sharing of names on the dial: Bulgari – Jaeger-LeCoultre or Bulgari – Vacheron Constantin, exemplified by either the signature iconic or rectangular watchcase of the former or the octagon watchcase by the latter. By 1978, Bulgari Tubogas watch bracelet were exclusively made in Switzerland at their own Bulgari Time, Write and Light facility.
By the 1980s, brand names in big, bold letters had become trend. The Bulgari-Bulgari bezel also found its way onto yellow and white gold Tubogas bracelets and from then on, into the hearts of fashion forward Editors, Stylists and celebrity trendsetters like Sophia Loren and Grace Jones. It’s the kind of legacy which follows today into the 2006 hit Devil Wears Prada or the 2008 hit MTV, Britney Spear’s Circus (she opens a Bulgari box and gets accessorised in Bulgari before she wrangles a group of hapless men).
In 2009, Bulgari celebrated its 125th anniversary and given the almost century-long span, there’s no question as to the Bulgari Serpenti’s position as one of the brand’s most timeless icons. For 2016, watches like the Bulgari Serpenti Incantati Skeleton Tourbillon take the fore as the brand’s premier emblem of high crafts and high horology. Accompanied by Serpenti Incantati jewellery to mix things up creating new expressions of the Serpenti which each dressing, it is possible for women of today to dress as the royals of the ancient world or as celebrities of the highest order.
Exquisite and breathtaking, these creations serve to renew not just the brand’s signature line but also as tribute to the motif’s most primal capacity for evolution and growth through almost 84 years of dedicated production.