In the glistening jungle that is the jewellery world, every maker has its mascot. Cartier is ruled by the panther. Tiffany & Co has Elsa Peretti’s scorpion. Chanel has claimed the lion, as chosen by Coco herself. And over the past century, the snake has become emblematic of the Roman house of Bulgari.
“The serpent should be on every finger and around all wrists and all everywhere… We can never see enough of it,” the fashion editor Diana Vreeland said of Bulgari’s stylish Serpenti. She was often photographed wearing her own 30in-long white enamel and gold snake belt wound around her neck, rather than her waist.
As editor-in-chief of American Vogue in the Sixties, she peppered the magazine with photoshoots featuring the jewels, including a legendary image for the September 1968 issue of the Italian model Benedetta Barzini with Serpenti bracelets and necklaces coiled around her shoulders and in her voluminous updo.
Benedetta Barzini with Serpenti bracelets and necklaces in the September 1968 issue of American Vogue
Just six years earlier, Elizabeth Taylor had propelled the design to international attention when she posed on the set of Cleopatra wearing a gold and diamond Serpenti watch. A potent combination of spiralling production issues and Taylor’s scandalous affair with her co-star Richard Burton ensured her portrait — and her watch — made global headlines.
“There was definitely a seismic Elizabeth Taylor effect for us,” says Laura Burdese, Bulgari’s vice-president of global marketing and communications. “She was one of the first big stars to buy her own watches and jewellery and, with that image, her charisma, power and sensuality became for ever entwined with our Serpenti. It created a lasting legacy for us.”
That legacy can be traced back to the late Forties, when creative director Giorgio Bulgari, son of the house’s founder, Sotirio, conceived an innovative line of watches with snake-like heads and supple bodies crafted with tubogas goldwork (a luxurious riff on the flexible gas pipes of the postwar period), where interlocking metal links were wrapped around an inner core, which was then removed to leave a curvaceous spring. The technique is still used today.
“Tubogas wasn’t new to jewellery design, nor was it exclusive to Bulgari,” says Burdese. “But the genius of Giorgio Bulgari was to combine it with the historical symbol of the snake for the first time to create something that had infinite creative possibilities and was attractive to women around the world.”
“What Bulgari did was create a blockbuster,” says Frank Everett, vice-chairman of Sotheby’s Jewellery in New York, adding that the serpent has cross-cultural appeal. “Snakes intrigue us. They’re a bit frightening, a bit sexy, a bit mysterious. It’s no wonder we keep going back to them in our art and in our jewellery. We can project whatever meaning we want onto them.”
Snakes have been worshipped since the days of the ancient Aztecs, Egyptians and Greeks and have represented everything from healing to seduction, power, fertility and rebirth. The pharaohs wore crowns decorated with the uraeus, an upright cobra, as a mark of their divine authority. Queen Victoria was given a snake engagement ring by Prince Albert, the meeting of its nose and tail a symbol of his eternal fidelity, and to play barbarian princesses the actress Sarah Bernhardt adorned herself with twisting serpentine armlets designed by the art nouveau illustrator Alphonse Mucha.
Serpenti Misteriosi Pallini watch in 18-carat gold and diamonds, POA
“What sets Bulgari’s serpents apart from all the others is their glamour,” says Everett, who claims a diamond Serpenti necklace is one of the only jewels that has tempted him away from wearing his signature lapel brooch to formal occasions. “There is an exquisite attention to detail in the craftsmanship too, such as the miniature striations within each scale or exceptional enamelwork in beautiful colour combinations. And they feel so good to wear.”
Just as a snake renews itself by shedding its skin, Bulgari’s iteration has transformed over the decades. From the industrial-inspired metal link watches of the Forties, the Serpenti evolved into sleek enamelled bracelets in the Fifties. By 1955, and with the introduction of smaller watch movements, the Serpenti had become a “secret” watch, its dial hidden within a recognisably life-like head. In the Sixties a slew of fabulous movie stars such as Anna Magnani, Gina Lollobrigida and Sophia Loren flocked to Bulgari’s flagship store on Via dei Condotti in Rome for elaborate gem-set snakes with tactile bodies of golden pallini beads.
“Like Elizabeth Taylor, these women were loyal clients and helped to take Bulgari from an Italian jewellery house to an international one,” says Burdese. “They made Serpenti a bestseller.”
The new millennium saw rapid expansion. In 2008 the Serpenti motif slid onto leather accessories. Eyewear and handbags followed. The lithe, modern Serpenti arrived in 2010 and, three years ago, its stylised cousin, Viper, was unveiled — a geometric, unisex fine jewellery incarnation in white, yellow or pink gold.
Serpenti’s latest forms are great examples of technical knowhow and ingenuity. The newest Serpenti Misteriosi watches, including a version capped with diamonds in homage to Elizabeth Taylor’s own model, feature Bulgari’s in-house micro-calibre, Piccolissimo, the smallest mechanical movement on the market, which can be detached by pressing the snake’s tongue.
Bulgari’s creative director, Lucia Silvestri, has celebrated the Serpenti’s anniversary by casting it as the star of this year’s high-jewellery collection, Mediterranea. Her Serpenti Baroque necklace design features seven emerald drops hung from the diamond-studded twists of a snake. After almost a century, it seems the sinuous allure of the Serpenti remains as potent as ever.
Who wore it best?
Elizabeth Taylor on the set of Cleopatra in 1962
Taylor, a voracious jewellery lover, was captured wearing her gold and diamond Serpenti watch on the set of Cleopatra in 1962. According to Bulgari, there is no record of the buyer’s name so it may have been a gift, but the watch was “certainly Ms Taylor’s choice”.
Gina Lollobrigida with Baron von Lille at a party in Gstaad, 1980
In 1980, the Italian actress and Bulgari aficionado contrasted an elaborate pearly ensemble with a sleek Sixties Serpenti tubogas watch for a glamorous party in Gstaad.
Naomi Watts at the 2015 Golden Globe in Beverly Hills
Naomi Watts wore several Serpenti necklaces during the 2015 awards season, including the dramatic piece set with more than 76ct of pavé diamonds that she wore to the Golden Globes. “It doesn’t bite,” she told interviewers.
Charlize Theron wearing Bulgari at the Oscars in 2019
Charlize Theron accessorised her icy 2019 Oscars red carpet gown with a frosty white gold and diamond Serpenti necklace and matching bracelet.
The Bulgari ambassador Zendaya wore a Serpenti Hypnosis necklace set with white and yellow diamonds for the launch of the brand’s 2023 high jewellery collection in Venice this June.
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