Throughout the history of humankind, our relationship with the snake has been conflicted. Different cultures have either worshipped, revered or feared its mysterious form. Today, most of us would run a mile at the mere sight of one, and yet we are fascinated by this mysterious creature, the exquisite color and patterns of its skin, the graceful way it moves across the ground and its piercing eyes that never close.
It is one of the most feared animals on the planet, and yet among the most popular attractions at any zoo!
Even though the Bible depicts the snake as the Devil in the story of Creation, most societies venerate the snake and have done so since prehistoric times. From the Aztecs to the Egyptians, the snake’s ability to shed its skin was a symbol of fertility, regeneration, resurrection and immortality. For the ancient Greeks, the snake was a symbol of healing, medicine, death and rebirth. This is why the symbol for a pharmacy often features a snake coiled around a chalice belonging to Hygieia, the Greek goddess of health.
The snake motif has also held a constant presence in the history of jewelry design going back to the ancient Egyptians and Romans. It fell from grace in the Middle Ages due to its association with the Devil, but reappeared again in the mid- to late-19th century thanks to the Art Nouveau movement and serpent motifs started to make a comeback with enamel decorations.
It was at the end of the 1940s that Bulgari started to make jewels inspired by the snake. Founded in 1884, the Italian jeweler had already gained quite the reputation for its ornate silverware and decorative objects. It wasn’t until 1905 that Sotirio Bulgari started to create jewelry. The company’s early pieces are often difficult to authenticate as, like most jewelers of the time, they did not sign any of their pieces.
The earliest known Bulgari serpent jewelry is the company’s bracelet-watch that was designed in the Machine Age style with its coiled body inspired by a gas pipe (Tubogas in Italian) that would twist around the wrist, and featured a tiny watch in the snake’s head.
Highly appreciated by Bulgari’s jet-set clients, the snake bracelet-watch, called the Serpenti, gained even more recognition when it was worn by Elizabeth Taylor on a publicity photograph taken on the set of the 1963 film Cleopatra in Rome. One of her personal jewels, it was the perfect fit for her in her role as Cleopatra. The Egyptian Queen was known to wear snake bracelets as well as a crown featuring a cobra, symbolizing her status as the queen of the Egyptian kingdom. The photograph of the Oscar-winning actress gained even more attention in the press when it was discovered that she was having an affair with the film’s leading man, Richard Burton.
From the 1950s to the 1970s each Serpenti timepiece had a white gold spring inside the body which was extremely flexible and allowed it to fit snuggly on the wrist. The earliest designs have two coils, but later versions included three and seven coils. The scales on these early pieces are of particular note as they are engraved to look realistic thanks to overlapping gold bands, or they were assembled out of slender tapered gold pentagons. Precious stones adorned the piercing snake eyes that never blink and a little fork-shaped tongue protruded from the mouth. The watch component was set inside the snake’s head with a hinged cover that would hide the watch. Bulgari partnered with brands such as Jaeger-LeCoultre and Vacheron Constantin for the tiny mechanical movements and both names would appear on the timepiece. Occasionally the watchmakers’ name would be on the dial and Bulgari’s name on the case.
By 1965, bright colors had become a common characteristic of Bulgari’s Serpenti watches, adding a touch of playfulness to the pieces. Some of the colors mirrored real species of snake such as the milk snake, or the serpente del latte, with its blue, red and black scales. Other snake bracelets featured colors that were fashionable at the time but had no connection to nature. These colorful enamel scales testified to the Bulgari family’s expertise in both design and craftsmanship. Each scale was applied with enamel before being fired in a kiln then meticulously pieced together with tiny screws.
The disco era of the 1970s and 1980s saw a change in the design for the Bulgari Serpenti with a move away from the high-jewelry, special- occasion-kind-of-pieces, towards a more casual look that could be worn anywhere and everywhere. Models from the 1980s were mainly crafted in yellow and white gold, with steel arriving for the first time in the 1990s. By this time, Bulgari had opened its own manufacturing facility in Switzerland in 1978, and was making its own watches.
In 2009, Bulgari celebrated its 125th anniversary with new versions of the Serpenti timepiece. Stunning double and triple coil snake bracelets in white gold or pink gold brought the collection back into the limelight in a big way with triangular heads, square scales and watch dials of mother-of-pearl or black onyx.
Some of the world’s most famous stars have worn the Bulgari Serpenti including the aforementioned Elizabeth Taylor, along with Andy Warhol, Kate Winslet, Zhang Ziyi, Scarlett Johansson, Jennifer Garner, Elizabeth Banks, Angelababy, Milla Jovovich and Dita Von Teese to name a few.
As sought after today as they were in the past, today’s Serpenti collection is as beautiful as ever with a vast range of models in every color of gold and set with the most amazing choice of precious stones.
From time to time, historical pieces come up for sale at auction much to the excitement of lovers of Serpenti history with prices ranging from $15,000 for non-jeweled pieces to over a million dollars for the most exquisite pieces. It seems that not everyone is running away from snakes after all!