Bulgari’s Serpenti totem has assumed many forms in the 74 years since its debut in postwar Italy. The jeweller’s earliest snake-inspired pieces tended toward abstraction, referencing ophidian sinuousness by way of a corrugated gold bracelet — based on the articulated flex of gas piping — that slithered up the wrist. More recent designs, such as gem-wreathed watch faces shaped like a venomous snake’s triangular head, have mimicked the creature’s slinky form more directly. But it is the Italian house’s bold creations from the 1950s and ’60s, those with the most recognisably reptilian features, that have influenced its newest collection of women’s timepieces.
The most famous example from this era became a global phenomenon in 1962 at Cinecittà, the movie studio in Rome, during the filming of the American director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s epic “Cleopatra.” Its star, Elizabeth Taylor, was captured on set wearing her diamond-headed Serpenti bracelet watch, and the resultant, widely circulated image helped turn the Roman store into an international brand — and the Serpenti into a metonym for no-holds-barred Italian glamour.
The new limited-edition Serpenti Misteriosi High Jewellery collection retains many of the aesthetic signatures of those glittering ’60s designs: pear-cut precious gemstones for eyes; hand-etched hard stones such as turquoise for inlaid scales; a pavé-diamond watch case and dial nestled beneath a hinged jaw, a flicker of a forked tongue testing the air. The main evolutions are technological: An ultrathin, sunflower-seed-size mechanical watch movement allows for a lighter, slimmer body, while the case itself can be removed from the snake’s mouth, transforming the bracelet into a piece of stand-alone jewellery.
“Today we have the opportunity to make a beautiful Serpenti with the right proportions because we have different technology and materials,” says Bulgari’s executive director of product creation for watches, Fabrizio Buonamassa Stigliani. “But we will never be able to reinvent a piece more beautiful than the original.” Instead, the house will forever circle back to its most seductive creation, time after time, like a snake eating its tail.