Icons & Innovators: Bulgari: A Man and His Machines

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An interview with Nicola Bulgari cannot be contained to a q uestion-and-answer format. With his enthusiasm and candor he instantly engages me in an impromptu, fast-paced conversation. He becomes excited, he pounds the table, his blue eyes light up, particularly when I mention one of his greatest passions: American automobiles from the early 20th century. As much as his public relations staff prefers that we focus on other subjects, we are talking about cars. He cannot help himself. Bulgari was born and raised in Rome, but a piece of his heart is lodged firmly in my hometown, Motown.

He arrives for our meeting in New York with shopping bags stuffed with books on vintage American cars—Buicks, Packards, Cadillacs, sedans, coupes, woodies, and wagons. The bags also contain original brochures with paint swatches, archives of old advertisements, and other memorabilia. When asked a historical question, he puts me on the phone with Beverly Rae Kimes, who wrote one of the books and is, in Bulgari’s view, the foremost authority on American automotive history. Kimes makes it clear that Bulgari is the most zealous advocate and collector of American autos anywhere, though he downplays his depth of knowledge.

Bulgari buys only American cars and wishes more Americans would do the same. The name Toyota draws his ire: “I don’t know why people buy it, it’s the most ludicrous, vanilla car in the world! I’ve driven in a few Lexuses and wanted to throw up—they have no personality. But Americans are convinced it’s the best car in the world. The biggest problem is they don’t love cars.”

Bulgari’s collection of about 130 cars is divided between Rome and Allentown, Pa., where he recently opened a new building that houses his favorite old Buicks, Packards, Nashes, and scores of other vintage cars—some completely restored, some in their original state, and some in between. His team of restorers is working on a rare 1937 Packard V-12 convertible that he acquired in Bologna, Italy.

Bulgari has little use for a car that he does not enjoy driving, and he takes a similar approach to assembling his other collections. He started collecting coins at age 11, and in the 1970s, this interest inspired the brand’s Monete Antiche collection, which features silver and bronze coins from the 4th century B.C. to the 4th century A.D. He is also a renowned collector of antique silver, which he has displayed in the Via Condotti flagship store. Whether he is looking at automobiles, coins, or art, Bulgari acquires only things that he connects with on an emotional level. “It talks to me or not,” he explains. “With all the money in the world, I would not own something just because it is a Picasso if I don’t like it.”

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