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Bulgari - Bulgari’s Serpenti, or the art of perpetual renewal

Bulgari Bulgari’s Serpenti, or the art of perpetual renewal

The Serpenti collection, Bulgari's true symbol, is in constant evolution and new models are added every year. WorldTempus offers you an overall look at the origins and the history of the collection.

Over its 133-year history, Bulgari has had both the opportunity to define a stylistic identity and the skill to continually renew it. For that, the Italian jeweler has extensive archives at its disposal, and a wealth of motifs some of which so enduring that they have become a signature symbol of the house. 

The “Serpenti,” is one of those symbols: the coiled snake motif, which first appeared in Bulgari’s watch repertoire in the 1940s, was revisited this year in the form of the two-headed Serpenti Misteriosi high jewelry secret bangle-watch, a shortlisted entry in the jewelry category at the GPHG.

La Serpenti de Bulgari, ou l’art du perpétuel renouveau

Montre à secret Serpenti Misteriosi © Bulgari

A path of design mutations

From the early stylized Serpenti watches of the 1940s, the maison moved on, in subsequent decades, to naturalistic iterations of the motif, according to the jewelry historian, Amanda Triossi, author of Bulgari: 125 Years of Italian Magnificence, published in 2011. 

Since the 1950s, Bulgari has continually produced Serpenti watch-bracelets in a variety of metal and color combinations. Though the dial and watch movements were, for a time, supplied by Jaeger LeCoultre, Movado, Audemars Piguet, or Vacheron Constantin, the bracelet design and manufacture - each piece carved, hand-set, and assembled in the jeweler’s own ateliers – have been the product of Bulgari’s own savoir-faire and mastery of metal flexibility. Manufacturing techniques were perfected over time, with some, like the Tubogas (or gas-pipe) technique developed in the 19th century, attaining iconic status by the 1980s.

La Serpenti de Bulgari, ou l’art du perpétuel renouveau

Serpenti Tubogas © Bulgari

Early versions of Bulgari’s Serpenti watches were made in yellow gold, with the snake’s head and tail set with diamonds. The watch purchased in 1962 by Elizabeth Taylor, which she is seen wearing in the still shots from Cleopatra filmed in Rome, is a famous example. Thanks to Ms. Taylor in part, Serpenti watches came to represent the glamour of Rome in the golden age of the Cinecittà Studios when the Eternal City was the destination of choice for the world’s glitterati and Hollywood celebrities.

Decades later, when Ms. Taylor’s Serpenti watch came to auction at Christie’s in 2011, its appeal was such that it fetched $974,500 (from an estimate range of $12,000-15,000) at the sale of her estate.

La Serpenti de Bulgari, ou l’art du perpétuel renouveau

Serpenti Five-coil Tubogas © Bulgari

Even without a star-studded provenance, polychrome enamel or gemstone variations of the Serpenti have been appreciated by both watch and jewelry collectors. In 2014, a Bulgari enamel and diamond Serpenti watch from 1965 sold at Christie’s for $1.1 million, a world record for the wristwatch.

La Serpenti de Bulgari, ou l’art du perpétuel renouveau

Serpenti © Bulgari

Since then, Bulgari has redoubled in creativity in the design of Serpenti watches. In 2015, the “Head Over Tail” Serpenti watch brought the snake’s head to rest on the end of its tail. In 2016, Bulgari introduced the Serpenti Spiga, the Serpenti Five-coil Tubogas, and the Serpenti Incantati, or Enchanting Snake, with a geometric serpent biting its own tail as it slithered around the bezel of a round dial. 

La Serpenti de Bulgari, ou l’art du perpétuel renouveau

Serpenti Spiga © Bulgari

For that redesign, Fabrizio Buonamassa Stigliani, director of Bulgari Watches Design Center, found his inspiration in a 1930s diamond brooch in the house archives, and came up with a new shape that helped define four new jeweled lines and the design of the Incantati Tourbillon Lumière Skeleton watch, the first Serpenti with a complication.

La Serpenti de Bulgari, ou l’art du perpétuel renouveau

Serpenti Incantati Tourbillon Lumière Skeleton © Bulgari

A multicultural symbol

Though the snake motif has lent itself beautifully to coiled jewelry designs, its enduring appeal is explained by its ancient and widespread symbolic significance. Widely present in both mythology and history, serpents have come to represent a variety of concepts including rebirth, transformation, immortality and healing. Their inherent duality – the combination of good and evil, beauty and danger, poison and antidote - adds to their intriguing charm.

La Serpenti de Bulgari, ou l’art du perpétuel renouveau

Serpenti Incantati © Bulgari

The Ouroboros, or the serpent eating its own tail, for instance, originated from Egyptian iconography as a representation of infinity or the cycle of life and death. Cleopatra was famously associated with the snake motif, a symbol of her seductive powers instilled with a latent danger. In Ancient Rome, the coiled snake represented immortality. In Greece, snakes were the accoutrements of Asclepius, god of medicine. Even the Victorian era succumbed to the charm of the snake when in 1840, Queen Victoria accepted Prince Albert’s engagement ring representing a snake, symbol of eternal love.

The artistic trajectory of the snake

The rich history of Bulgari’s Serpenti and the trajectory of the snake motif in jewelry, art and design have been, since 2016, the subject of a travelling exhibition titled “SerpentiForm” curated by Lucia Boscaini, Bulgari’s Brand and Heritage curator and examined in the book titled Serpenti, Art and Bulgari Design. 

Bulgari’s Serpenti, or the art of perpetual renewal

Exposition « SerpentiForm » © Bulgari

The show examines Serpenti creations from Bulgari’s historical archives and explores its relationship to jewelry on loan from Pompeii and the Archeological Museums of Taranto and Naples, alongside contemporary works of art and photographs by artists including Alexander Calder, Robert Mapplethorpe and Helmut Newton. The show is visible through December 25 in Tokyo at the Mori Arts Center Gallery.

With the snake, Bulgari has tapped into a symbol that is both ancient and perfectly adaptable to contemporary tastes. Expect to see new examples of Bulgari's perpetually renewed symbol very soon.

La Serpenti de Bulgari, ou l’art du perpétuel renouveau

Serpenti © Bulgari

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