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The history of Bulgari watches

Founded in Rome in 1884 by a talented Greek silversmith, Bulgari is known worldwide for its distinctive and bold style which combines innovation with a historic legacy.

After leaving Greece in 1881 and spending three years in Naples, Sotirios Voulgaris (1857-1932) moved to Rome where he set up his first own shop in Via Sistina.

10 years later Sotirios opened another shop in Via dei Condotti, 28 and decided to Italianise his name in Sotirio Bulgari (the phonetic version of his surname). He traded a variety of goods, ranging from silver objects, antiques and bric-à-brac to jewels.

The Bulgari shop at Via dei Condotti 28. The sign reads: “S. Bulgari - Argenteria Artistica, Antiquités, Curiosités, Bijoux”

In 1905, a new shop is opened in Via Condotti, 10 which is still today the point of reference of all the Bvlgari stores in the world. The original name chosen for the Condotti store is “Old Curiosity Shop”, to capitalize on the wealthy British and American tourists visiting Rome, while the stock is widened to include an increased selection of jewels and items, mainly influenced by Art Déco and French design.

The Bulgari Old Curiosity shop at Via Condotti 10

The Bulgari store at Via Condotti 10 in the 1920s and, below, the contemporary Bulgari store on Via Condotti

When Sotirio’s sons Giorgio and Costantino joined him in the business, they suggested that the family company could further grow focusing on high jewellery.

The early high jewellery creations of the 1920s reflected the design of traditional French school, incorporating platinum and diamonds with geometric and stylised Art Déco design.

The first known examples of Bulgari wristwatches date back to these years, although it is very likely that they sold watches from the very beginning of its business.

The design of these jewelled watches was in line with the Art Deco, dominant style in the 1920s.

Above and below, Bulgari wristwatch in diamonds and platinum for Ladies (W33), circa 1920. The rectangular dial is framed by a geometric pattern set with circular and triangular diamonds, the openwork bracelet is set with circular cut diamonds.

Platinum and diamond Bulgari wristwatch, (W50), circa 1922. Decorated with baguette and circular-cut diamonds, the bezel and articulated shoulders frame a rectangular silver coloured dial with black Arabic indexes and leaf-shaped hands. Secured to the wrist by a black silk adjustable strap, the case houses a mechanic movement signed Vacheron & Constantin.

The founder Sotirio died in 1932, leaving the company in the hands of his two sons, Giorgio and Costantino, who continue to develop the business.

Gentleman's platinum wristwatch (W35), circa 1930. The rectangular case frames a  dial with Greek key motif, date aperture, auxiliary seconds, and Arab numeral indexes. Note the error on the dial featuring "30 instead of 35".

Bulgari success in the field of watches gained momentum in the late 1940s, when the company began to produce wristwatches in the form of snakes, designed as gold coiled serpents worn wrapped around the wrist and terminating with a jewelled head concealing the dial, so reinterpreting a tradition dating back to Hellenistic and Roman times.

Another characterizing element of Bulgari’s style in watchmaking emerging in these years was the Tubogas bracelet. An example of industrial-inspired design (the name came from its similarity to a lowly woven-metal gas pipe), it was formed by long bands of gold or steel that are wrapped around a steel core. First introduced in jewellery in the Art Deco period, the Tubogas was also extended to watches by inserting a watch dial into a Tubogas bracelet to create a stylised serpent watch.

Examples of Bulgari Tubogas wristwatches from the 1960s: from left to right a three-gold model ending with a pear-shaped watch, a white gold model with a central oval case and a third model in yellow gold with a rectangular case framing a white enamel dial with Roman numerals.

In these years, Bulgari further enjoyed increased international fame also thanks to movie stars and celebrities from the international jet set like Liz Taylor, Richard Burton, Audrey Hepburn and Tyrone Power becoming acquainted with the brand.

In terms of style, Bulgari took a step further by introducing daring chromatic combinations of precious stones and coloured stones.

In the 1970s, Bulgari emphasised the key concept of “wearability” in jewellery, calling for pieces to be worn from morning until night. Yellow gold was the favourite metal.

In the watchmaking field a key date for Bulgari is 1975, when the brand creates the BVLGARI ROMA gold digital wristwatch with the launch of a limited series of 100 pieces, intended as a Christmas gift for Bulgari’s top clients.

The first BVLGARI ROMA wristwatch in gold with digital display and cord/leather strap and, below, a BVLGARI ROMA wristwatch model with analogue dial and black alligator strap - 1975

Adorned with the logo of the brand engraved on its bezel like the coins struck by the Roman emperors, this timepiece was soon in great demand bringing Bulgari to launch, in 1977, its first watch for man produced on a large scale, the BVLGARI BVLGARI.

BVLGARI BVLGARI watch in gold in leather strap - 1977. For the first time, a logo became the prominent decorative element on a high-end watch, further emphasised by the volumetric mass of the cylindrical case.

Following the success of the BVLGARI BVLGARI, in 1980 the brand created a watch business unit and in 1982 the Bulgari Time S.A. company in Neuchâtel, Switzerland. This was the first step toward a strong verticalisation in watchmaking to fully manage the creation and production of all Bulgari watches.

The introduction of the Diagono model in 1988 was the first of a new line of sport watches, still characterized by the BVLGARI BVLGARI logo on the bezel.

The Diagono - 1988

A remarkable release was the Aluminium in 1998, an innovative sporty looking watch in aluminium and rubber. The bracelet of the watch was a combination of black rubber and aluminum links and buckle.  The red tipped seconds hand provided a splash of color to a black and white dial. The innovation of Aluminium inspired the design of future Bulgari watches to come.

Pursuing the goal to  develop their know-how in the watch complication craftsmanship sector, Bulgari acquired the luxury brands Daniel Roth and Gérald Genta, Swiss leaders in high-end watch making, as well as Manufacture de haute horlogerie SA, the owner of the related manufacturing facilities. These acquisitions gave rise to a new company named Daniel Roth et Gérald Genta Haute Horlogerie S.A. based in in Le Sentier in the Swiss watchmaking region of Vallée de Joux.

In 2004, the first BVLGARI-BVLGARI Grand Complication watch was presented to the public.  It was a limited edition Tourbillon in yellow or white gold with a 64 hour power reserve and a transparent case-back to view the movement. 

More acquisitions of Swiss companies followed in 2005 (50% of Cadrans Designs S.A., specialised in watch dials and 51% of Prestige d’Or S.A., specialised in the production of steel and precious metals watch straps for high-end watches) and in 2007 (100% of Finger S.A., a Swiss company specialized in the creation and production of sophisticated cases for complicated and high-end watches).

With them, Bulgari created a network of manufacturing facilities for the production of top-of-the-range cases, dials and watch bracelets while continuing to expand their knowledge of the mechanical base and complicated movements.

In 2010, the cutting-edge skills of the Gérald Genta and Daniel Roth Manufacture in Le Sentier were merged with the image of Bulgari brand.

The merge was celebrated with two watch creations, where the Bulgari brand was featured along with the Gérald Genta and Daniel Roth logos. At the same time, both the acquisitions of Cadrans Designs S.A. and Prestige D’Or S.A. were completed at 100%.

The Bulgari Daniel Roth Tourbillon Rattrapante and, below, the Bulgari Gerald Genta Octo Bi-Retro - 2010

In 2011, LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton acquired a majority stake in Bulgari. With a 3.7 billion Euros deal, the Bulgari family’s majority shareholding in Bulgari S.p.A. was transferred to the French group. LVMH issued 16.5 million shares in exchange for the 152.5 million Bulgari shares currently held by the Bulgari family, who became the second largest family shareholder of the LVMH Group.

In 2012, the Octo case design, previously used for some Gerald Genta complications, was restyled giving birth to a complete new line including three-hand watchers and, two years later, chronographs.

The restyled Octo presented in 2012

With the new Octo Finissimo Tourbillon, presented at Baselworld 2014, Bulgari achieved a world record with the thinnest tourbillon movement on the market.

The Octo Finissimo Tourbillon featuring a 40 mm platinum case with a thickness of 5 mm - 2014

The tourbillon cage determined the overall thickness of the entire hand-wound movement, a mere 1.95 mm. Bulgari was able to create such an exceptional slimness by omitting a regulator assembly and adjusting timing on the balance wheel directly.

Of course, Bulgari continued to express its vocation in serving Ladies with timepieces of extreme femininity, like the Lucea, characterised by a luminous round case, a crown set with a cabochon-cut stone and a distinctive bracelet with trapezoidal links.

After the thinnest tourbillon in the world, Bulgari set a new record in 2016 with the thinnest striking watch on the market, the Octo Finissimo Minute Repeater. For Ladies, the iconic Serpenti line was enriched by a new variation merging sophisticated watchmaking and high jewellery, the Serpenti Incantati, also including models with a mechanical feat like the Tourbillon, not often seen on timepieces for Ladies.

The Octo Finissimo Minute Repeater: to achieve the optimal sound within such a small space, Bulgari created openings in the dial to amplify resonance and used titanium for its capability to diffuse sound - 2016

The impressive series of records continued in 2017 with the slimmest ultra-thin self-winding watch, the Octo Finissimo Automatic featuring a total thickness of just 5.15 mm thanks to a 2.23 mm thick self-winding movement.

The Octo Finissimo Automatic and its 40 mm diameter sandblasted titanium case with a titanium crown enhanced by a ceramic insert - 2017

Other outstanding world records came in the following years with the Octo Finissimo Tourbillon Automatic, the Octo Finissimo Chronograph GMT Automatic, the Octo Finissimo Tourbillon Chronograph Skeleton Automatic and the Octo Finissimo Perpetual Calendar for a total of seven watchmaking world records, a strong demonstration of the exceptional watchmaking skills achieved by the brand.

Fully carrying out the long-term plan envisioned at the beginning of this century, today Bulgari designs, develops and produces in-house all the essentials components of its watches, from the casting of the gold alloys to the machining, crafting, assembling and finishing of the movement, case, dial and bracelet. bulgari.com

By Alessandro Mazzardo. 
First published on February 21, 2020, last updated on January 12, 2024.
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Time and Watches | The watch blog: The history of Bulgari watches
The history of Bulgari watches
Bulgari history. The Bvlgari watches history. From the first known examples of Bulgari wristwatches dating back to the beginning of the 20th century to the exceptional world records in watchmaking achieved in the 2014-2019 years, we retrace some of the key milestones in the watchmaking history of the brand. The milestones of Bulgari's watchmaking. Storia degli orologi Bulgari
Time and Watches | The watch blog
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