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: The Power of Serpenti
Text Cherie Wong
Photo Nicholas Biebuyck

There have been numerous discussions around what constitutes truly iconic watches in recent years; it must be said though that much of that focus has been on men’s watches, whilst ladies’ timepieces have not received the same kind of attention, perhaps because the latter has often been a feminine interpretation of the former, rather than a development purely focused on what women would want to wear. As such, we simply know how the piece evolves aesthetically or technically over its history, but seldom do we actually understand its cultural representation.

The truth is that to really get to know something, we have to look much deeper into their stories and how they happened to affect our present, often changing the status quo. Many watch and jewellery developments have evolved from cultural and social phenomena, marking key events over time. Amongst them all, there is this model that speaks to the history of women’s empowerment: the Bulgari Serpenti. The design of the pieces not only carry the glamorous identity of high jewellery, but also fascinating stories related to the women who have worn it.

19_Bvlgari’s Serpenti collection

The Golden Start

At the beginning of the 20th century, in many parts of the world, women started to gain control of their lives by obtaining rights for education, voting, marriage and economic independence. The awakening of feminine power lead to more attention to be put on women’s empowerment movements, with more female leaders emerging in different industries, and their opinions being treasured in high society. The accessories they wore symbolised the rise which embraced enormous creativity and culture.

The first Bulgari boutique on Via Condotti 10, in Rome, has had a long and fascinating history of creating iconic pieces since 1905. After World War II, Bulgari jewellery was inspired by Greco-Roman Classicism and Italian Renaissance, with the fine workmanship of lines and details by goldsmiths, created with precision and clarity of style. 

In the late 1940s, Bulgari produced the first yellow gold watch in coiled snake form, inspired by the Hellenistic and Roman motif, naming it the Serpenti. By taking an old artefact from the Roman era, the technique of making the Serpenti body was from the gold necklace or bracelet in twisted form, with advanced skills making it pipe-like, which is where the name Tubogas comes from, as its literal translation is “gas pipe”. 

When talking about Serpenti, we need to give the context of its background to get to know this stunning yet meaningful piece. The snake was a symbol of fertility, strength, eternity and seductiveness. Because of their ability to shed their skin, snakes were worshipped as guardians of birth, immortality and regeneration. From Egypt to China, India, ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, the snake exemplifies numerous values that lie at the core of the relationship between mankind and transcendentalism. The choice of this vigorous totem was a reflection of women gaining power.

17_Italian antiques’ showcase

Antique artefacts in snake motif

The Hollywood Era

From the 1950s, women’s behaviour and ideas of beauty and fashion were often influenced by the media. There were times that women were believed to be “the bearer of meaning and not the maker of meaning”, which cinema tried to break. With more women having joined the media industry and expressing their point of view by becoming producers or directors, the media started to portray the image of independent women, following the rising number of women in the workforce.

With the rise of Hollywood movies during the “American New Wave”, Hollywood stars discovered Bulgari, including Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida, Shelley Winters, Ingrid Bergman and Audrey Hepburn, taking the Italian brand international.

 In the 1960s, there was a second wave of feminism to challenge the power structure and gender norms. The placement of jewellery and watches in movies and on celebrities carved out the Italian brand’s rightful place in history. 

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Cleopatra, played by Elizabeth Taylor; Elizabeth Taylor with the Serpenti bracelet in 1962

In the 1962 movie Cleopatra, the most expensive movie production of its time, showcasing the legendary life of the queen of Nile, showed that despite all the love and hate relationships with Greek kings in the movie, Cleopatra was a capable female ruler, who was intelligent with broad knowledge of politics, economics, social and military matters, and a brilliant linguist, who was believed to be fluent in seven languages. She kept Egypt from a Greek invasion, preserved the waning civilisation and protected her people from wars. The movie, to certain extend, demonstrated rise in the 60s of women’s right to freedom of speech, and equal ability in executive works.

Played by Elizabeth Taylor, Cleopatra presented herself as the reincarnation of Isis, a goddess worshipped from Alexandria to Rome, whose many attributes included a serpent. She was known to wear a coiled gold snake bracelet and her gold diadem included an upright cobra, a total emblem with apotropaic powers in ancient Egypt, and the best symbolic representation for one of the most influential and powerful empresses in history.

Besides her roles on the silver screen, Elizabeth Taylor’s personal life was also under the spotlight. The legendary pavé-set diamond snake head bracelet watch with emerald adorned eyes, sharing the Serpenti design from the 1950s to the 1970s, that Taylor wore in the photograph during movie shooting, was purchased on January 30, 1962. Although the client’s name wasn’t revealed, and in spite of all the speculation on who bought the bracelet, there are chances that Taylor herself, perhaps inspired by the queen that she was playing, purchased the jewel to celebrate her million-dollar Cleopatra contract, the highest salary paid to an actress at the time, and a significant step for equal pay and proof of equal value of actors and actresses. 

The Colourful Dolce Vita

Beside the glamorous attention from  the big screen, print media also influenced many women by sharing their views on Serpenti. There was a memo from Vogue chief editor Diana Vreeland to the editorial staff, on 16 September 1968:

“Don’t forget the Serpenti… The Serpent should be on every finger and all wrists and all everywhere… The serpent is the motif of the hours in jewellery… We cannot see enough of them…”

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Diana Vreeland with the Serpenti necklace

Vreeland represented the cultural female icon with sophisticated taste and forward thinking. Leading not only Vogue, but also Harper’s Bazaar, she was considered the Empress of Fashion at the time. She was fond of the Serpenti design and wore a unique gold snake belt with white and pink enamel, measuring over thirty inches, twisting it twice around her neck in a more unconventional yet stylish way, matching the free-spirited 1960s. 

The mid-60s were certainly symbolised by the flourishing Dolce Vita era, when women were more into dynamic style with an exotic sense of touch. The gold pentagon-shaped scales were individually crafted with colourful enamels or semi-precious stones like lapis lazuli, coral or mother of pearl before being pieced together with tiny screws.  The production of enamel pieces is long, as each scale was painted and fired separately by hand before assemble. Certain snake species inspired specific collocations and their names were subtly engraved in Italian on the tails. 

 

Under development for 15 years, the Tubogas techniques were perfected in the 1960s. The appearance of Serpenti in the 1960s were all made in yellow gold with gem-set heads and tails.  The crafting of the body takes many hours of specialised work, whereby two elongated gold strips with raised edges are wrapped around a core of wood or copper; once the gold strips are fully intertwined, without being soldered, the wooden core is dissolved or the copper core removed. The coiled bracelet gained flexibility with the white gold spring inside the body, and the apparatus’s flexibility allows it to gently cling to the wrist. The coil evokes the sinuous form of a snake. Whilst the earliest designs had two coils, later creations have displayed as many as seven. 

The Serpenti is not only a piece of high jewelry but has also been a manual winding watch on occasion, with the display concealed within the serpent’s head. The dial is revealed from by opening the hinged jaw. The small watch movements, needed to fit within the serpent’s head, always came from leading watch manufacturers, including Jaeger-LeCoultre, Vacheron Constantin or Audemars Piguet. Generally, these pieces possessed a dual signature, or occasionally the watchmaker’s name on dial and BULGARI engraved on the tail.

From Work to Play

In the 70s, there were women’s liberation movements that led to women heading back into the workforce for more diverse job opportunities. The ladies needed real and practical pieces that they could purchase for themselves, wear to work, out to dinner and go to nightclubs. Creations like the Must de Cartier, with gold plated silver cases, colorful lacquered dial in the simplest form of design and quartz movement, and silver pieces, like Open Heart and Diamond by the Yard from Tiffany & Co. were created to fit the demands of the era.

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Bulgari Serpenti advertisement in 1970s

“ People no longer want something they put on or carry for great occasions, but jewellery they wear often with many things.” New York Post, 1 September 1970

Grace Mirabella was then the chief editor of Vogue. She was famous for her rational approach to the fashion movement in the time while balancing the family and career outfits that were very different from what Diana Vreeland did. Mirabella was the first woman who used an African American model, Beverly Johnson, on the cover of American Vogue, adorned with a pair of Bulgari earrings, in 1974.

For Serpenti,  the design was developed into a simpler version of Tubogas which was created with a more casual and everyday wear look, introducing a steel and gold version which overcame the melting temperature and malleability difference of the two metals, with watch cases in simple forms connected directly to Tubogas bracelets. The manual winding movements at the time were still outsourced from established watch-making brands like Vacheron Constantin, Movado and Jaeger-Lecoultre.

Be Bold

From the 1980s to the early 2000s, the demand for watches and jewellery that could be worn from day to night kept increasing. A single element design was the twist to represent the spirit where women are looking for more daily wear yet stylish pieces. At the time, watches were relatively more conservative on bringing up the brand identity. Bulgari stepped up for a more forward approach to the brand by putting its own name twice on the bezel, creating the “Bulgari Bulgari”. The “Bulgari Bulgari” watch was paired with a coiled gold Tubogas Serpenti bracelet, to suit the trend of large logos broadcasting the designer brand. Stainless steel version was also added to the collection.

The placements of jewelry in movies had not stopped; Bette Midler’s wardrobe included a Tubogas Serpenti in the 1988 film, Big Business;  in 2006’s The Devil Wears Prada, Meryl Streep played the part of editor in chief of a fashion magazine, wearing a steel version of the design. All were professional women with successful careers.

What’s Next?

In 2009, to celebrate Bulgari’s 125th anniversary, the new Serpenti Secret watch returned to the collection. The designs are bolder and evolved into forms with different materials. From then, the Serpenti not only continued the design by using enamel, combinations of precious and semi-precious stones and diamonds to create the scales on the snake’s body, but also creating new perceptions of what Serpenti may be like. 

Adding new interpretation of the serpent’s skin, the body of the Serpenti no longer bonds to be two-dimensional in scale form but three-dimensional golden beads. Each bead is individually attached to the plate of the serpent’s body with fine gaps, allowing the beads to move with motion. The Serpenti Misteriosi Pallini not only transcends from flat to structural, but embraces movement and sound with the mobile sphere, enlivening the sensory experience with motion as it clings on the wrist. 

Along with the reinterpretation of skin, in 2015, a hand over tail style was introduced, moving away from the classic wrapping style, which also means for the first time without internal spring, but leading to single bracelets that women can wear on their own.  The following year, Serpenti Seduttori was launched as a fixed bangle with huge cabochon precious stones adorned on the snake head, yet another modern interpretation of the icon showing the flexibility for women to put on  their own jewelry. 

Looking forward, we have achieved so much with the foundations that were built by the people before us. In big cities like Hong Kong, we can proudly say women are on the much more fair ground with equal opportunities and rights, and the fashion that we have adopted is clearly the influence of what culturally shaped us. The story of Serpenti, shows how much it evolved with the women who have worn, and continue to wear it. It’s the empowering stories that shapes us for the better.