Paolo Bulgari is very tall with white hair: he is a man of few words but has a considerable sense of humour. He works in his office on the first floor in via Condotti above the legendary jeweller’s shop. The offices were renovated a year ago and the walls are covered with light coloured wood. His office is a large room appointed with antique furniture which probably belonged to his father or grandfather. Now he is the President of Bulgari.
Alain Elkann, March 11th 2001
The Bulgaris are a dynasty of jewellers. How did it all begin?
It began with my grandfather who immigrated here from Greece in 1880. He started as a silversmith in Naples then moved to Rome where he opened his first shop in via Sistina then relocated to via Condotti. In 1908 my father and uncle started working in the business.
When did you become the number one jewellers in Italy?
The turning point came in the 1930s, precisely when my father and uncle opened the big shop in via Condotti which is there to this day.
Did they start as silversmiths?
No. They were already evolving into jewellers because they didn’t believe there was a future just in silverware.
Did they have many important clients?
Yes, from all over the world. However, at that point most of the clients were either Italian or American.
Your main competitors were in Paris, weren’t they?
Yes, but in Paris too the important clients were mainly American. Before the 60s it really wasn’t possible to have clients from Japan, the Middle East and other European countries.
Who are your clients nowadays?
They come from all over the world.
Do you believe that jewellery is a safe-haven asset or an investment?
It has always been regarded as a safe-haven, but people are less worried about the political situation than in the past. Jewellery is always a sound investment.
Do you have your own private collection?
We do have some outstanding works, mainly from the years between 1930 and 1960, and we use that collection when we take part in special events or exhibitions.
How many people work for you and how many shops do you have?
We have around 1600 employees who work in our 120 shops around the world.
You are the President of Bulgari. What is your job?
Mainly the creative part: jewellery and timepiece design. Our most famous watches were designed in the 60s. Now we sell about 130 – 140 thousand a year and they are all high value items.
Do you need to be very creative to do your job?
Absolutely, creativity is necessary in any job. We have about 10 or so outstanding young designers but there must be aconstant flow of creativity.
Do you buy the precious stones yourself?
Not for the day-to-day business, but my brother Nicola and I do buy the most important ones. We buy them in New York, Geneva, London, Ceylon, Tel Aviv and Antwerp.
How can you tell if a stone is important?
For example, it could be a diamond worth from 20 to 30 million up to billions.
What is the most valuable gemstone you ever bought?
It’s going on sale at auction in New York in the next few days: it’s a diamond called La Favorita. It weighs 51 carats. I bought it in Paris in the 60s and sold it to an American. His heirs have put it up for auction at 5 billion dollars. I paid 140 million for it 30 years ago.
Over the years who are some of your most noteworthy clients?
Two Kings of Saudi Arabia were our clients in the 70s and 80s. Barbara Hutton was one of my father’s greatest clients, they met in the 1960s: an extraordinary woman. Henry Ford II was an important client in the 1970s; and when Richard Burton was filming Cleopatra in Rome with Elizabeth Taylor he bought her the most incredible emerald necklace. I remember they were always arguing like crazy and to make up he gave her beautiful jewels.
Is it mostly men who buy jewels?
Important gemstones are bought by men. I had an Italian client who bought some marvellous jewels for himself; he kept them in his safe and took them out now and again to look at them.
What is your personal favourite gemstone?
The emerald. Its colour fascinates me and it’s a stone I know very well.
Which gemstone do Italians prefer?
Italians are big jewellery buyers because they know how to live well and they love sapphires, rubies and emeralds, basically the colourful jewels.
What do you give as presents to your children?
I have never spoiled them, but I have given them emeralds because the emerald is my own favourite stone.
Are watches the most successful line in your collection?
Certainly, they make up about 42 percent of our turnover. But perfumes are important too. They are about 8 – 10 percent of our market and do very well: for example, BLU is our latest fragrance for women and it is extremely successful.
How do you maintain your image?
You have to work really hard and pay attention to quality. I strive for this every day. My brother and I work really well with a group of younger managers. Our success is based on good communication between us and our managers.
What city do you choose to live in?
I live in Rome. I really like to go out to the country and stay there for a few days out of the public eye, to read and be with my children. I also like buying paintings, but I’m not a collector. Middle Eastern countries fascinate me.
Do you take care of any clients personally?
There are certain clients who still want to deal with me. There are far fewer Kings and Queens nowadays, usually they are important businessmen: I often have to go to Switzerland, France and the Middle East. I’m good friends with the brothers of the King of Saudi Arabia and I used to go to Iran quite often. My brother Nicola lives in America for six months of the year. I go there two or three times a year.
What does Bulgari mean today?
I believe it’s an important name for the image of Italy. Starting out as a small family business, we have now become a large company that is quoted on the Stock Exchange. We have operations all over the world, and Japan and the United States are especially very big markets.
What worries you? Are you afraid that someone could be interested in buying your brand?
The world today is in an agitated state and there could be some hard times. There are also global worries. For the moment we are not for sale and I’m not interested in buying anyone else.
Stock prices are fluctuating a bit this year. How is your stock price doing?
It picked up by about 4-5 per cent in the last few days. We have started a joint venture with Marriott, the biggest hotel chain in the world, and in the next five or six years there will be some super luxury hotels bearing the Bulgari name.
Do you still consider yourself to be an artisan?
That’s correct, but I am also a businessman.
Do your children work in the company?
My son Giovanni and my daughter Irene work with me.
Have you ever thought about doing something else in life?
When I was young I wanted to be an architect. Then my father, who had a very powerful personality, convinced me to do the same job as him.
Do you do the same with your children?
Not at all, my children are free to do whatever they want.
How much of your year do you spend in Italy and what do you think of the current situation?
I spend about seven or eight months of the year in Italy and the rest abroad. I believe you shouldn’t worry too much about the situation. It’s hard at the moment, but Italy is a country with remarkable resources.
Is it nice to have a name that needs no introduction?
It’s part of the pride that I take in doing the work that I do.