The diamond industry has always lent itself to well-told stories. The beauty, wealth, even power associated with this fantastic creation of earth easily captures the imagination. Those involved in the trade of diamonds and creation of jewelry were often unusual people, who thanks to their tendency to do things in their own unique way succeeded in their endeavors. Of the many people whose stories have been told here over the past year or so, Sotirio Voulgaris holds a unique place. His name is virtually unknown, although his eponymous brand is well known, his geographic origin is different than other central players in the industry, and the route he took was uniquely his, leaving a sublime legacy behind him.
Sotirio Voulgaris was born in a small village in the Pindhos mountain range in Epirus, Greece on March 18, 1857. His chances of surviving childhood or even infancy were very slim. He was one of 11 children born to his parents, all ten of his siblings died, leaving him as the sole survivor. The area where he was born and raised has a history of jewelry making and is known for its silversmith art. Traditionally, since ancient times, jewelry design, making, knowledge, and skills were passed down from father to son. Sotirio’s father, Giorgio, was no different, passing to his son generations of accumulated understanding of how to turn the hard, cold metal into wonderful creations of desire.
The Voulgaris family specialized in unique silver earrings, belt buckles, and sword sheaths. And in this same tradition, Voulgaris was trained in his ancestors’ craft. His grandfather used to sell his jewelry as a street vendor, but Sotirio and his father Giorgio decided to open a small store in their village.
During that period, the region was under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, and the decades old hatred between Greeks and Turks had many ugly manifestations. One was a series of fires set by Turks that targeted Greek establishments, aimed to hurt them financially. In 1873, one of the stores set on fire was that owned by the Voulgaris family, when a decision was made to burn down their home village of Paramythia in order to rebuild it from the ground up. The security and safety of the local Greeks did not improve, and in 1876 Sotirio was a victim of an attempted robbery.
Those events led Sotirio’s father Giorgio to the decision to immigrate. With a desire for safety and a more peaceful life, the family left its ancestral land and moved to the beautiful Greek island of Corfu in 1877. There they opened a small jewelry store. A few years later, Sotirio met Demetrios Kremos, a Macedonian silversmith. They became good friends, and decided to try and reach further with their dreams. They left Corfu and sailed to Brindisi and then travelled to Naples, where they opened a small gold jewelry shop together in Piazza dei Martiri in 1880. Sotirio may have immigrated to distance himself from violence and crime, but at times, that bad luck kept following him around. Not long after they opened their store, it was looted. Naples suffered from a serious crime wave, and their store was broken into and robbed several more times. The two partners decide to try their luck in another place, and left Naples for Rome in 1881.
A Greek merchant who lived in Rome offered Sotirio and Demetrios the opportunity to display their jewelry in his store, making room in one of the store’s windows. Rome was going through a modernization and growth spurt, and the two jewelry makers did well. However, disagreements between them developed to the point that they decided to part ways.
Honing and perfecting his innate silversmith skills, Sotirio Voulgaris set up his first shop on his own in 1884 at 85 Via Sistina, just down the street from his previous location. As he was getting ready to open the store, he made an important business decision: to Italianize his name. He changed his name to Bulgari, the phonetic version of his Greek name, and adopted Bulgari as his company name.
Enamored with the history of ancient Rome, Bulgari developed a jewelry design style that incorporated the symbolism of the city into his designs, which were no longer limited to silver, adopting gold as his metal of choice. His designs were bold, large, incorporated semi-precious gems, and characterized by long soft lines that added grace to the large jewelry items. As further tribute to Roman history, Bulgari replaced the ‘U’ in his store name to ‘V’V, the Latin letter for U. Sotirio knew that great design would serve him well, and he trusted his workmanship to construct high-quality jewelry as well, but to really succeed, he needed a little more. In 1894, he moved the store to a new location, 28 Via Dei Condotti. Street traffic was good, and his business continued to grow, but when he found out that he could clench a store up the street at number 10 Via Dei Condotti, just by Piazza di Spagna, he grabbed the opportunity.
In 1905, Bulgari opened the second store with the help of his two sons, Costantino and Giorgio. Bulgari wanted to attract British and American tourists heading to the Spanish Stairs Fontana della Barcaccia, famous tourist destinations. This location later became the Bulgari flagship store of today.
In 1932, Sotirio Bulgari died, leaving behind a legacy of fine jewelry design. That legacy lived despite a very challenging period. During the 1930s, Italy went through a turbulent time. The Fascist party was in power and Benito Mussolini was the head of state that led the country into financial ruin, and eventually into World War II as part of the Axis forces. This put a chokehold on tourist traffic to Italy. Under German influence, Italy started adopting laws that fit the Nazi doctrines of economy during war time as well as focused on eliminating Italy’s Jewish communities. In response to a raid of the Roman ghetto in October 1943, Sotirio older son Costantino Bulgari, together with his wife Laura, hid three Jewish women in their home in Rome. For that act of bravery, Costantino and Laura Bulgari were awarded the title of Righteous among the Nations at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.
Costantino’s younger brother Giorgio took the helm and managed the company until his death in 1966. It is said that the founders build, the sons maintain and the grandchildren destroy. That was not the case for the Bulgari family. Giorgio’s son Gianni, a member of the third generation in the family business, sat in the CEO seat and drove the company into new markets, opening stores all over Europe and the US.
Over the years, the company went public, grew to some 150 stores, added watches and perfumes to its line of products, and annual revenues exceeded $1 billion. Today, the business is fully owned by LVMH, which bought the company in 2011 for $4.3 billion. At the time, the company was managed by Sotirio’s great-grandson, Francesco Trapani. A few members of the Bulgari family are still involved with the company that bears their name.
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