I t was a snake that lured Eve into eating an apple in the Garden of Eden, and for centuries humans have seen snakes as equally terrifying and captivating. A reptilian animal that has inspired myths and legends — be it the ancient Greeks, the Romans, the Pharaohs of Egypt, and many more — snakes are an intrinsic part of storytelling since time immemorial.
Its sinuous, lithe form also became popular inspiration for jewellery, with perhaps the most famous collection ever being the iconic Serpenti collection by Bulgari. A collection that, like a snake shedding its skin, have been dazzling jewellery connoisseurs with different iterations since it its first appearance 75 years ago in 1948.
The Allure of the Serpent
The pharaohs wore a symbol of the snake, called the Uraeus, on their crowns, with the Uraeus seen as the symbol that protected them and cemented the pharaoh’s legitimacy as a ruler.
In ancient Greece and during Roman times, snakes were associated with healing. The Greek god Apollo had a son called Asclepius who became the god of medicine. Asclepius carried a rod with a snake curled all around it, a motif that is still used today as a symbol in the field of medicine and healthcare. On the other end of the spectrum is Medusa, a monster creature that is often depicted with a head of snakes as her hair.
When it comes to the history of snakes being featured in high jewellery, Cleopatra was well known for favouring snake jewellery — likely one of the elements that perpetuated her image as a beautiful seductress. And in 1839, Prince Albert gave Queen Victoria an 18-carat gold ring in a serpent design that he designed himself. A serpent ring was seen as a symbol of everlasting love and Queen Victoria’s ring featured rubies for its eyes, diamonds for its mouth and an emerald in the centre as it was her birthstone.
In the 20th century, other jewellery houses aside from Bulgari started to flex their creativity in ways to depict the serpent. In 1968, Cartier created a snake necklace for Mexican actress María Félix, a stunning piece featuring 2,473 diamonds set in platinum, white gold and yellow gold, with two pear-shaped emeralds for the eyes. The necklace also featured green, red and black enamel for the lower side of the snake, making it an intriguing piece that looked exquisite at all angles.
However, it is still Bulgari that is the brand synonymous with snake jewellery, with its Serpenti line being a muse for the brand and its best-selling collection.
The Early Decades of Serpenti
The first Serpenti piece was designed in 1948: a bracelet-watch in gold with a square head for the dial and a body that wraps around the wrist. The flexible bracelet-watch was done in a Tubogas technique that featured consistent coils of gold.
The design eventually evolved in the 1950s to resemble more of a serpent, featuring a realistic looking snake head that is set with precious stones such as rubies, sapphires or emeralds for the eyes. The watch dial was located discreetly in the mouth so that it is a “secret watch”, as dubbed by the industry.
By the 1960s, the body of the Serpenti bracelet-watches took on a more sophisticated design as well, featuring scales made from sheet gold that was attached to one another with gold pivots. Some of the designs feature enamel for a more vibrantly coloured piece and gemstones such as lapis lazuli, coral, jade, onyx and turquoise were used to embellish the scales.
Bulgari revived the Tubogas style in the 1960s and 1970s, with the watch dial now in a geometric shape. It was also during the 1960s that the actress Elizabeth Taylor started to be linked to Bulgari, starting from when she bought a Serpenti watch in Rome while she was filming Cleopatra at Cinecittà Studios — an apt choice given the role she was embodying. At that time, Taylor was also in the infamous love triangle between her, her husband Eddie Fisher, and Richard Burton, her co-star in Cleopatra, and the increased attention on Taylor helped raise Bulgari’s profile beyond Rome.
Serpenti Reinvented for the 21st century
It was in 2010 that Bulgari combined its two beloved style elements — the Tubogas body and the serpent head — to form the Serpenti Tubogas collection. In 2017, the brand introduced the Twist Your Time collection, where the Serpenti watch comes with a wrap-around leather strap.
Bulgari also incorporated the Serpenti design into other forms of jewellery, with the serpent curling its way around necklaces, bracelets and rings. And while the jewellery house continues to craft high jewellery in the Serpenti design, it also produced more casual pieces for everyday wear. Bulgari now offers simple but still elegant options such as the Serpenti Viper bracelet in 18K white gold that featured the Serpenti form in a slim bangle and is available plain or set with pave diamonds, or the Serpenti Viper ring in 18K rose gold.
Just as a snake goes through metamorphosis, Bulgari is constantly reinventing the Serpenti collection and yet every iteration does not feel like an outdated version but rather a fascinating insight in the history of this much-loved design.