PARIS — They were cinematic titans with curves. When we think of Sophia Loren, we think of her hourglass figure, Gina Lollobrigida and her swelling bosom, Anna Magnani’s earthy sexuality. Something in those ripe Italian stars of the 1950s and ’60s melded perfectly with Bulgari. The Roman jeweler’s voluptuous, rounded cabochon jewels, melon-shaped evening purses and splashes of vivid color expressed the sensuality of that period’s stars.
And those were the days when movie divas bought, rather than borrowed, their jewels. Photographs from that era show Anita Ekberg wearing flower jewelry at the premiere of Frederico Fellini’s film “Boccaccio 70” in 1961 and Claudia Cardinale wearing Bulgari at an embassy event.
Never has the phrase “La Dolce Vita” — “The Sweet Life” — seemed more appropriate than in the splendid display of jewels at the Grand Palais in Paris until Jan. 12. “Bulgari: 125 years of Italian Magnificence” features 603 jewels, each more exceptional than the last — from the colorful breastplates with cabochon stones to the jeweled flower bouquets to the serpent watches designed to wind around the wrist. Film clips playing on overhead screens complement a striking exhibition, by showcasing the actresses of that time. Elizabeth Taylor has an entire room devoted to her private collection. The snake bracelet was a favorite, as were several luscious and colorful stones. She even posed in a swimming pool for Helmut Newton in 1989, with a parrot on her shoulder that was color-matched to her necklace. “The object is to tell a story of style — it’s about our heritage — and that was not built in 20 years,” said Francesco Trapani, Bulgari’s current chief executive and a great-grandson of the brand’s founder.
The exhibit is organized chronologically, opening with silver pieces created in the 19th century by the Greek-born Sotiris Boulgaris, who settled in Rome in 1881. From the geometric designs in platinum and diamonds of the ’20s and ’30s, some with “transformable” jewels that convert into separate parts, Bulgari invented a signature piece: the “Trombino,” or trumpet ring. Introduced in the ’30s, it was a broad brand of pavé-set diamonds, with baguette diamond “shoulders” supporting a bold table-cut stone. There are warm yellow-gold pieces from the ’40s and sinuous motifs from the ’50s, soft lines and free-form compositions, particularly in the quivering jeweled flowers.
Ms. Triossi, who has been working on the archives since 1994, points out exceptional stones, such as sapphires in unexpected colors. The opulent roundness of the gems and their bold hues reinforce their rarity. Other displays are devoted to particular stones and colors, or to the many facets of Bulgari’s work: the “Giardinetto,” or flower-in-a-pot, brooches; classical coins; the “melon” purses hanging from silken cords; and the snake wristbands. “Adding a bit of spice to elegance” is how Mr. Trapani describes the jewel designs that continue into the 21st century and still demand what he calls “a self-confident client” who is “a bit more bold.” An increasing number of those jewel hunters come from China, which Mr. Trapani says is slated to take over from Japan as Bulgari’s primary market.
The Paris exhibition will move to Beijing and Shanghai in 2011. Ms. Triossi says that although Bulgari has a wide-ranging collection and an ongoing commitment to buying back key pieces, private loans account for 60 percent of the jewels on view at the Grand Palais exhibit. The fact that stars and royal clients, who are often fickle, have hung onto the jewels — like the Grimaldi family of Monaco — suggests an emotional attachment to Bulgari that resonates through the show.