As playwright John Heywood reminded us, “Rome wasn’t built in a day, but they were laying bricks every hour” – a fitting aphorism for the constantly evolving Bulgari Bulgari, a wristwatch inspired by the spirit of the Eternal City.
Symbols of elegance, the simplicity and purity of Bulgari timepieces lay testament to their roots, which are set firmly in the classicism of ancient Rome. And it is this refinement that makes the Bulgari Bulgari watch one of the brand’s signature models – alongside favorites such as the Octo, Lvcea and Serpenti.
An archetypal watch, instantly recognisable by the logo on its bezel, the origins of the Bulgari Bulgari are found in a timepiece dreamt up by the three Bulgari brothers – Nicola, Gianni and Paolo – and designed by Gianni himself to personally gift to the brand’s top 100 customers in 1975. Known as the Bulgari Roma, the watch embodied the very essence of the brand: simple, but at the same time, bold and innovative.
A solid-gold case, its profile reminiscent of a horizontal slice of a Roman marble column, featured a bezel inscribed with the words “BULGARI” and “ROMA” executed in a stylised version of the traditional Romano font used to inscribe the celebrated arches of Rome. The watch was powered by a quartz movement, while the strap was cord macramé – a contradiction to Bulgari’s super-luxe image, but a material and a movement very much of their time.
According to Bulgari’s Brand Heritage Director, Lucia Boscaini, Gianni saw his design as a one-off, something money could not buy. “We have asked him,” she confirms. “He said he had no plans at the time. The first 100 were daring and quite a gamble, and the investment for such a small run would have been significant.” As there was no agenda – the watches were simply “thank you” gifts – there are no accurate records of how the watch became so successful, but Boscaini suggests that the first owners of the Roma were the “influencers” of their day.
“At that time, Bulgari was more exclusive and the customers were more niche. They were part of the elite,” she says. “And, of course, Gianni himself was a socialite and a traveller. He was international and handsome and people followed his life. The press coverage of the time focused on him and his jet-set lifestyle, but the accompanying pictures showed him wearing the watch.”
Under the Influence
Whereas today, a watch’s reputation can be made or broken overnight thanks to social media – particularly Instagram and its army of professional influencers – in the 1970s a following was built more slowly and organically. When Bulgari decided to adapt the Roma for series production, there was no press conference or launch party, and the success of the watch was due to word of mouth. “We really aren’t sure how much time it took, but it gradually became a requested watch,” says Boscaini.
“It didn’t happen immediately, but gradually demand rose and I think this was a surprise to everyone in the company as they didn’t expect so many people to want a Bulgari watch. The company had always been innovative in jewellery design and now here it was creating a product for men and opening up a whole new market.”
As requests came in for the watch, a small series of Bulgari Roma watches was put into production featuring a black dial, hour markers and hour and minute hands. More success followed and Bulgari’s journey into watchmaking was under way, with the Bulgari Roma forging the path.
Adopted commercially in 1977, the design centred around the name – the “Roma” having been replaced by a second “Bulgari”. At that time, the context of a “logo” was not established. The uppercase letters, the font that has been associated with the brand since it was used in 1934 for the flagship store on Rome’s Via Condotti, and the classical “V” in place of the contemporary “U”, were only seen on the boutiques, of which there were few. So, it is the legacy of the watch that it was responsible for “BVLGARI” becoming the brand’s established logo.
“The Bulgari Bulgari is arguably our most important wristwatch,” says Boscaini. “OK, some may say that it was nothing that creative, but actually it was extremely creative. Bulgari had been a jeweller since 1884 and, while we did have several ladies watches and a few men’s watches, they were linked to sales or unique pieces for particular clients. But, by the 1970s, Bulgari was ready to move forward. It was still a family company and, although growing, relatively small with boutiques in Rome, Europe and the US.”
On the Money
From the 1990s onwards, all luxury brands began to reshape their product categories, introducing new lines from fragrances to bags, jewelry and watches. But Bulgari had started to restructure its business in this strategic way two decades earlier, and the introduction of the Bulgari Bulgari was the lynchpin, creating a new direction, while all the time recognising and reflecting the integral codes that had helped to form the brand during the first half of the 20th century.
While most 1970s designs were wacky and weird or ultra-thin, the Bulgari Bulgari was round and chunky and took as its focal point the double logo on the bezel. The logo and its positioning were inspired by the letters on antique coins – a staple adornment of the brand since the 19th century when Sotirios Bulgari ran the family silversmith business in Epirus, Greece. And coins continued to be integral to Bulgari designs, culminating in the stunning Monete jewellery of the 1960s – famously worn by the brand’s most celebrated devotee Elizabeth Taylor.
As is expected from Bulgari, the Monete designs involved the contrast of placing antique coins in a contemporary setting, the coins showcasing an inscription of their relevant emperor’s name – and it is this that led to the new Bulgari Bulgari logo, the brand name transposing that of the emperor. “And in this way, the brand becomes the design,” says Boscaini. “Because, visually, there is nothing else but the brand.”
Since the first Bulgari Bulgari, there have been many versions for both men and women, featuring different colourways, materials and treatments. The design has evolved and faded in and out of fashion but has always remained faithful to Gianni’s original and to the spirit of the time.
Earlier this year, the latest models were unveiled. Still utterly recognisable but with a fresh new look, the watches were four years in the making. Every element has been redesigned, from the lugs and the crown to the bezel and the dials. The indexes recall those of its 1970s ancestors, while the dial, with its all-new finish is, for the first time since the Roma, logo-free.
A Face with No Name
Bulgari’s Director of Watch Design, Fabrizio Buonamassa Stigliani, says that the idea to omit the logo from the dial came to him during a product meeting to discuss the prototypes: “I saw that the face was fantastic. It is matte black with those iconic indexes and I suddenly realised that the logo should stay on the bezel. When you have to play with very simple forms – just a round shape and a logo without any decorative elements – it can be a nightmare. The watch is our history and our future and we decided to remove the logo from the dial to bring it closer to the original model.
“If you are in the Swiss watchmaking industry, there can be no discussion about branding the dial. But we are Italian and we are descended from Gianni Bulgari. We are a different story and we march to our own beat. I knew instinctively that we should not touch the dial because it was perfect and pure.”
Despite the design being 40 years old, the latest iterations feel completely of their time, a fact that Buonamassa Stigliani attributes to the brilliance of the original design. “In the 1980s, it looked slightly out of step because we added different dials and new hands,” he says. “We made some mistakes, but at some point, we knew we had to come back to the rules of the original. What was not so easy was the fact that the watch has two different cases – one for strap and one for bracelet. Today that is not the norm, but it is the only way for Bulgari Bulgari.”
The trio of 2018 Bulgari Bulgaris is a feast of black and bronze with different strap treatments. The watches are simple and well-executed and, ultimately, astonishingly easy to wear. Housing the automatic Bulgari Calibre 191 with hours, minutes and seconds plus date window at 3 o’clock and a 42-hour power reserve, the 41mm cases are in bronze, two-tone black DLC-coated stainless steel with bronze bezel or full black DLC-coated stainless steel. As well as the individual patination of the bronze, further customisation is enabled via a tool-free interchangeable strap system that allows easy transition between embossed rubber, alligator-leather or calf-leather straps. Two new women’s quartz models are also available in either 23mm or 33mm cases with several dial options.
And with these new versions, the timepiece that started Bulgari’s venture into watchmaking, again comes to the forefront. Although, in recent years, it has been quieter and less of a headline-grabber than the show-stopping Octo, the Bulgari Bulgari is now waking up from its years as a sleeper watch and preparing to reclaim its position as one of the brand’s signature pieces.