IT’S A SCORCHING hot day in June at Paris’ Place Vendôme. I break into a sweat standing in the afternoon sun as mobs of tourists in glittered T-shirts and flip-flops stroll by, the intense heat casting a sense of slow motion over everything. The guards standing inside Bulgari’s flagship showroom — a sprawling masterpiece of precious materials redesigned by architect Peter Marino in 2021 — motion for me to wait before entering. I’m in the middle of a weeklong trip to three different Bulgari Hotels in London, Milan, and Paris, the latter of which I checked into that morning after a delayed Eurostar arrival from London, which also felt like slow motion.
I’m a food and travel writer, not a jewelry writer, so I wasn’t sure what to make of a legacy jewelry company getting involved in “luxury hospitality” — a travel-industry term that’s been so overused it’s essentially meaningless. Finally, the guards summon me to enter. I step past the enormous carved blue wood doors into the honey-hued Lutetian limestone building with its iconic oxeye windows and I’m immediately overcome with the sensation of being inside a church. The cool air inside engulfs me, a perception magnified by the dense materials around me — onyx, porphyry, malachite, lapis lazuli, and Pavonazzetto and Breccia di Seravezza marble — each cool to the touch. Diamonds sparkle everywhere, as if in a glacial cave. Icy sapphires and forest-green emeralds soothe my sun-strained eyes.
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I know little about jewels, but I’m married to a Swiss architect who’s quite knowledgeable and fussy about building materials. So I’ve learned a lot about the cost and quality of these materials from checking into hotel rooms with him and being informed — often against my will — as to which components are cheap and which are expensive. Fortunately, this intel helped me develop a cheat sheet on which hotel brands cut corners, an asset for any travel writer and hotel critic.
Ralph, said architect, is not with me on this Paris visit, but I can hear his voice of approval as I study the rarefied stone, metal, and wood used in the showroom. The materials change every few feet, as do the interiors of the brass-trimmed walnut display cases gleaming with semiprecious stones: articulated topaz, calibre cut rubies, pavé diamonds, and tourmaline set intricately in rose and white gold. I meander past stylish Champagne-sipping couples trying on platinum rings. I glide to the back across meticulously distressed parquet floors under a refurbished Gio Ponti–designed 1960s chandelier and 13 skylights where apricot light floods down from above, illumining each sparkling gem and slab of marble like a Caravaggio still life. I tiptoe up a floating marble staircase inspired by a 1930s Bulgari heritage bracelet and ascend to the VIP level, where plush velvet sofas, Danish teak chairs, and fluted blonde-wood walls with marble trim further envelop me. Much to my surprise, the Bulgari store is not just a showroom of jewelry. It’s also a manifesto of the world’s most expensive materials and methods. And like a grandiose basilica or a bejeweled mosque, one needn’t be a believer to be spellbound by its interiors.
While the showroom crystallized the brand’s opulence for me, the individual hotel stops were by no means secondary. The London property, near Hyde Park in Knightsbridge, has 85 very spacious rooms each lined with shellacked walnut walls and damask silk curtains embroidered with a motif inspired by a piece of vintage Bulgari jewelry. The hotel also boasts a split-level, 22,000-square-foot spa (evidently London’s largest) designed by Antonio Citterio and Patricia Viel and implemented in onyx, oak, and Vicenza stone. The 82-foot-long swimming pool is lined with glinting green and gold mosaics, and a thermal bath is covered with gold leaf tiles. I made good use of both to offset the calories I gained while nibbling on resident pastry chef Gianluca Fusto’s creations made with creative pairings like porcini and milk chocolate, vanilla and pecan, star anise gel and herbs, and a killer vegan trilogy of saffron, mango, and maple.
Bulgari’s newest opening in the City of Light in 2021 ushered in an era of sleek Italian modernism, a style Paris has long eschewed. Like the other Bulgari properties, interiors are heavy on precious materials: lacquer, parchment and straw marquetry, exotic woods like eucalyptus and Burmese teak, and dazzling cuts and angles of marble and stone that pay homage to the Italian brand. The design of the Paris property, arguably the best and most expensive in the brand’s current portfolio, seems to ignite the long-running dispute between the two countries that has existed since the sixteenth century when Catherine de’ Medici allegedly taught the “uncivilized” French to eat with a fork, then a newfangled invention in Italy. (A factoid Italians forever love to remind the French.) The rooms are airy and light, as is the property’s rambling 4,000-square-foot spa that conjures up ancient Rome with an 82-foot-long subterranean swimming pool glinting with gold and malachite mosaics, while a vitality pool echoes the Roman baths at Caracalla. Recently, the Paris property introduced several VIP experiences helping guests access more of the city, including a VIP breakfast atop the Arc de Triomphe and private Champagne tours with the Musée Marmottan Monet’s curator.
The trip’s final stop was to the brand’s first property, the 58-room Bulgari Hotel Milano, secluded at the end of a private drive adjacent to a leafy park in Milan’s Brera neighborhood. When I arrived on a Saturday afternoon, Italian fashionistas and wealthy Milanese families sat around sipping chilled Ca’ del Bosco and pink rosati and ever so slowly transitioning from Sunday brunch to Sunday supper, though nobody seemed eager to leave the shade of the umbrella pines that warm afternoon. Rooms are swathed in teak and black Zimbabwe marble with balconies overlooking the garden.
Though my appreciation for the hospitality company deepened in each city, it was the Paris Bulgari showroom where I had the aha moment — the denouement, where I understood what makes this brand stand out: precious materials. Like the jewelry, the hospitality arm cuts no corners when it comes to materials. To the untrained eye, the hotels may look spartan or even austere, but scratch the surface and settle in for a while as I did, and you’ll understand why the brand is worth getting to know.
So who is Bulgari, and where and when did it all begin? Founded in Rome in 1884 by a talented Greek silversmith Sotirio Bulgari, the company immediately established a reputation for intricate artisans who made creative, bold jewelry. Over the years, a distinctive style emerged, marked by exuberant color combinations and discreet motifs that pay homage to its Roman roots. The silver ornaments first forged by Sotirio Bulgari were sought out by English tourists coming to Rome on the Grand Tour. His first store on Via Sistina quickly led to additional satellite shops.
The prosperous 1920s saw the first wave of crossover from France, incorporating platinum and diamonds with geometric and stylized art deco design that dominated French design schools from art to architecture. And two decades later, in the 1940s, an Italian Bulgari style really began to emerge, incorporating the vermillion hues of yellow gold and the sinuous coils of serpents I witnessed in the display cases in Paris. The glam 1950s La Dolce Vita era gave way to the expansionist 1970s when Bulgari grew in Europe and the U.S. and eventually began producing perfumes, leather goods, and watches, all still being manufactured today. In the 1980s, a flair for experimentation began and unconventional materials were incorporated to make modular jewelry and watches using steel, hematite, coral, porcelain, and silk. This era planted the seeds of a dedication to rarefied materials that make Bulgari’s properties stand out today.
2011 saw Bulgari partner with LVMH, the world’s leading luxury group, via a stock transfer of the Bulgari family’s shares reportedly valued in the billions, the most expensive bid LVMH offered for any other company. Under this acquisition, the Bulgari family sold their 50.4% controlling stake in exchange for 3% of LVMH, becoming the second-biggest family shareholder after the powerhouse Arnault family. The takeover doubled the size of LVMH’s watches and jewelry unit, which already included Tag Heuer timepieces and De Beers diamonds. And with such a concentration of luxury goods in one portfolio, services seem like a wise direction.
While the jewelry sales continue apace, the brand has been expanding its once-fledgling hospitality arm at a brisk pace. The 135-year-old jewelry company joined forces with LVMH and Ritz-Carlton (an arm of Marriott) to become one of the world’s most exclusive hospitality brands. After opening Milano in 2004, followed by Bali, London, Beijing, Dubai, and Shanghai, 2022 and beyond will see the opening of six more properties. These include Tokyo, LA, Miami, and the Maldives, and a new hotel in Rome’s Campo Marzio neighborhood that is poised to be a game-changer.
Another of Bulgari’s more interesting angles is hiring Niko Romito, a 3-Michelin-star chef, as chief of its food and beverage division to spearhead the gastronomy offerings, a critically important element of any Italian brand. The role is more ambassador-like than anything. Romito, who runs his own cooking school, food, and bread lab, and the 3-Michelin starred Casadonna Reale in Abruzzo, Italy, has brought his style of disciplined Italian cooking to the brand, which is creating waves throughout the industry. “The project was born to create a model of true Italian cuisine that can be found at Bulgari locations worldwide, from China to the UAE to France,” says Romito. “Over the years at Casadonna, we’ve developed and tested the Italian cuisine, which must be consistent at all the properties. Not just the food, but the mise en place, the dishware, and the service. Italian cuisine is often misinterpreted, so it’s important to us to be correct and consistent,” he continues. Digging into lasagna and enjoying an aperitivo in Paris may sound strange, but once upon a time, so did eating with a fork. It’s a reminder to never underestimate the power of Italian hospitality.
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Adam H. Graham Writer
Adam H. Graham is an American food and travel journalist based in Zurich, Switzerland. He’s a frequent contributor to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, Afar, and more. He typically spends a few months every year in Japan, and recently spent several weeks visiting Japanese vineyards in several different prefectures.
Paolo Abate Photographer
Paolo Abate is an interior and travel photographer based in Italy.