A 135-year-old legacy tying tradition and modernity through exquisite jewels and watches, Italian luxury maison Bulgari epitomises craftsmanship in its finest form. And one of the most recognisable designs from the brand is the Serpenti, snake-like and sensuous, which has stood the test of time (and style) for more than 80 years.
Bulgari’s Serpenti creations date back to the 1940s. As a tribute to its Roman roots, the brand first interpreted the design in sinuous bracelet-watches, which immediately garnered the attention of jewellery connoisseurs. It even went as far as to establish Bulgari as a major player in the international jewellery market. The snake-inspired pieces looked like coils, created employing the Tubogas technique, an ancient Roman practice of twisting to create jewellery – the term ‘tubogas’ refers to the design’s resemblance to gas tubes. The watch, which was linked to one end of the bracelet or in the centre, was created in a variety of shapes such as drop shape, round, rectangular or octagonal.
But it wasn’t till the 60s, when its popularity really hit a high. One of the brand’s biggest patrons was screen legend Elizabeth Taylor, whose jewellery collection, packed with the rarest diamonds, rubies, and sapphires from some of the most iconic jewellers, is the stuff of legends. “I introduced Liz to beer, she introduced me to Bulgari,” husband Richard Burton had famously quipped while filming ‘Cleopatra’ with her in 1962. It was during this time that in between takes and to escape the paparazzi, the Academy Award-winning actress would often visit Bulgari’s flagship Via Condotti boutique to try their exquisite pieces. With their love affair in full bloom, Burton showered Taylor with extravagant gifts, mostly jewels from their favourite maison. One of these pieces was the Bulgari Serpenti bracelet-watch in yellow gold and diamonds with emerald eyes, specially designed for her, which she was spotted wearing in Rome in the 1960s on the set of ‘Cleopatra’. And just like that, the design was on everyone’s mind.
A tribute to the Roman roots
What put the Serpenti in a league of its own is that it pointed to the changing social customs of the time, with women gaining power in politics and acquiring a more confident somewhat seductive attitude. After being spotted on Taylor, the Serpenti gained popularity in mainstream fashion. Diana Vreeland, one of the leading tastemakers of global fashion, and an editor at Vogue is said to have issued a memo to her staff in 1968: “Don’t forget the serpent…the serpent should be on every finger and all wrists and all everywhere”. By that time, Vreeland herself owned a customised Bulgari serpent belt.
In the 1950s, the Serpenti resembled snakeskin scales, all crafted meticulously. Each individual scale was enamelled, fired in an oven, and then attached with tiny screws. To further resemble an actual snake, the pieces were given eyes, mostly made of sapphires, rubies, or diamonds. Another addition was made in the 1960s, when a fork-shaped tongue seemed to emerge from the mouth, which concealed the watch dial.
If the initial phases Serpenti were all about watches, the ’70s saw Serpenti bracelets gaining popularity. Again, exquisitely finished, enamelled, and studded with precious stones, it soon became a signature piece of the maison.
1975 saw Bulgari launch a limited edition digital watch with the inscription ‘BVLGARI ROMA’ – the piece was a Christmas gift for the brand’s top 100 clients. An overnight success, it led to the creation of the BVLGARI BVLGARI logo, which was eventually engraved on the Tubogas Serpenti watches, today a bestseller at the maison. From fashion editors to models, the watch gained great attention, and has been in production for nearly 30 years. Bulgari made its Serpenti bracelet longer and coil further, so it could really snake around one’s hand.
Serpenti and its many renditions
Over the past decades the iconic Serpenti motif has been interpreted in exquisitely crafted neckpieces, bracelets, and even bags. From Meryl Streep’s watch in ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ to singer Florence Welch stacking up several Serpenti bracelets and a Tubogas watch in the music video ‘Spectrum’, the ubiquitous motif has gained a cult status. And who can forget Charlize Theron at the Oscars this year, wearing a double wrap, white gold Serpenti necklace studded with 61 brilliant-cut diamonds. The design even became a part of fragrances from the brand, with the cap of the Goldea bottles flaunting a snake wound around it.
Bella Hadid, Emma Watson, Natasha Polly, Jessica Beil, Alessandra Ambrosio are some of the names who have adorned Serpenti neckpieces on the red carpet. Another iconic Serpenti neckpiece was exhibited at the renowned 2012 Biennale des Antiquaires in Paris, comprised of 1,100 carats’ worth of emerald beads.
To help celebrate the iconic motif, ‘Serpentiform: Snake Through Art, Jewellery, and Design’, a one-of-a-kind exhibit was held at the Museum of Rome, Palazzo Braschi, in 2016. The exhibit, which travelled to Singapore and Tokyo in 2017, showcased how Serpenti as a form has evolved in art and jewellery design. From the Pompeii bracelets shaped in the form of a snake, to artworks by Piero Dorazio, Joana Vasconcelos, and Fornasetti that paid obeisance to the design, the exhibition went to show how the design has found a permanent place in fashion’s firmament.