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Style and substance: Bulgari watches

Bulgari watches’ product creation executive director Fabrizio Buonamassa Stigliani explains how the aesthetics and technical features of its timepieces have equal weight

3 August 2021

Fabrizio Buonamassa Stigliani
Bulgari watches combine the watchmaking expertise of the Swiss with the flair of Italian design

You will certainly know that Bulgari makes beautiful, distinctive, decorative jewellery. The house, founded in Rome in 1884 by a Greek silversmith named Sotirio Bulgari, has for nearly a century and a half created jewellery that, over time, has become associated with the use of coloured gemstones to create pieces infused with Italian elegance.

During the Dolce Vita era – the ’50s and ’60s – Bulgari was discovered by the Hollywood actors who came to Rome to film there and the jeweller’s reputation spread. Among those stars who made the trip to Bulgari’s shop in Rome’s Via Condotti were Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Ingrid Bergman and Anita Ekberg, whose famous dip in the Trevi Fountain in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita is, of course, a moment of cinematic history.

All this may have the ring of familiarity. But did you know that Bulgari has also been making beautiful watches for around a hundred years too? The early ones from the ’20s were jewelled and in the Art Deco style of the day.

What’s interesting is that, while as a jeweller Bulgari serviced a female clientele, as a watchmaker it made for men too. There is a striking platinum and diamond lady’s wristwatch from around 1920 where a rectangular dial is surrounded by a geometric arrangement of triangular and circular diamonds, with a bracelet featuring circular diamonds. But a wristwatch dating from approximately 1930 in platinum with Arabic numbers and a Greek key pattern is clearly for a male customer.

Over the years, Bulgari’s watchmaking has evolved, to the point where today it is an important part of the house’s creative output. The horological division is now housed in Switzerland, under the watchful, expert eye of Fabrizio Buonamassa Stigliani, product creation executive director, an intriguing character who was a car designer in a previous life.

What is so compelling about the Bulgari watch story is that the pieces that Buonamassa Stigliani is developing manage to combine the watchmaking expertise of the Swiss under the bonnet, as it were, with the flair of Italian design on the body. It is as if the engine is Swiss, but the coachwork is pure Italian.

The analogy is appropriate, as coachbuilding is a passion of Buonamassa Stigliani’s: “I love coachbuilders more than car makers,” he explains. “Coachbuilding is for me the maximum expression of Italian creativity – the great Italian coachbuilders like Bertone, Vignale, Michelotti, Zagato and Pininfarina are masters. The Lamborghini Murciélago, for example, is one of the most important artistic expressions of the last century.”

When it comes to watches, Buonamassa Stigliani, who has been with Bulgari since 2001, is clear that, as with the cars he so admires, it is the combination of form and function that is crucial. It is, he says, an idea rooted in the Italian concept of bello necessario – the necessity of beauty in everyday life.

“The design history of Italy is full of bello necessario, where aesthetics and technical features have equal weight. You see it in a Ferrari. And in Bulgari watches. If a watch is just technical then this is too cold. And if it is purely beautiful, then it is a piece of art that you should put in your dining room.”

The ideal, he explains, is the perfect balance between style and substance, beauty and functionality.

Bulgari, says its product creation executive director, understands this perfectly, and the Swiss/Italian, or more precisely, the Swiss/Roman combination produces extraordinary timepieces that are perfectly emblematic of bello necessario.

“In Italian we have many words, but we don’t have a word for design. Instead, we talk about the art of industrial design: arte applicata all’industria. You could say that art is too artistic and engineering too cold for us when it comes to design, so we combine the two.”

“If a watch is just technical then this is too cold. And if it is purely beautiful, then it is a piece of art that you should put in your dining room.”

Bulgari Allegra High Jewellery watch

This, he says, is what you see in Bulgari watches. What you also see is an aesthetic that can bridge different styles of timepiece. Two of the most recent creations, unveiled earlier this year, epitomise this. On the one hand there is the streamlined Octo Finissimo Ultra-Thin. On the other, the bejewelled Allegra.

“Bulgari is a unique brand as it gives the designer the opportunity to play with the aesthetic of the house. With these two products you have the thinnest perpetual calendar watch in the world, the Octo Finissimo Ultra-Thin, Bulgari’s seventh world-record breaking creation in this field, and then there is a jewellery watch, the Allegra, which features decorative coloured gemstones. Our aesthetics are very wide.” He goes on to explain that what ties all the house’s timepieces together is the use of geometry and colour – explaining how titanium is not just a material for Bulgari, it is a colour, a colour of men’s watches.

Fifty-year-old Buonamassa Stigliani may have been born in Naples, but he moved to Rome when very young and considers himself a native of The Eternal City. He sees Rome as being central to the design philosophy of Bulgari, where his aim is to create pieces that transcend the here and now and have genuine longevity. “Our watches are part of the metaphysical word of art, I believe. They are close to the sole of The Eternal City. Rome is frozen in time. You cannot compare it with other cities. The Octo Finissimo or Allegra or our Aluminium watch – they all speak of Rome, because Rome talks to you about eternity. True luxury products are things you pass on to family, children, friends and lovers. You yourself only have ownership for a short time.”

Bulgari, 177-178 Sloane Street, SW1X 9QL | 020 7838 8850
Peter Howarth is executive editor of Brummell magazine

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