- Associated Press - Thursday, May 1, 2014

HOUSTON (AP) - Richard Burton once quipped that Elizabeth Taylor knew only one Italian word: Bulgari.

The movie star collected hundreds of fabulous jewels in her lifetime, but few as grand as the Bulgari pieces from Burton, including a platinum-and-diamond necklace centered around a 65-carat Burmese cabochon sapphire, a present for her 40th birthday. It sold at auction in 2011 for $5.2 million.

The necklace is one of 150 one-of-a-kind creations from the Bulgari Heritage collection on display beginning Friday at the Houston Museum of Natural Science in “Bulgari: 130 Years of Masterpieces.” A section of the exhibit is devoted to Taylor’s famous pieces from the Italian jeweler.

Houstonians Lynn Wyatt and Joanne King Herring loaned their own notable necklaces for the occasion.

Herring, a longtime political donor and activist, was given the jagged and dramatic diamond sautoir necklace by her then-husband, Houston developer Robert King.

“They had it in the window at the Pierre, and every time we went to New York I’d see it and yearn for it,” she told the Houston Chronicle (http://bit.ly/1iOkZR1 ). “When he offered it to me, he said, ‘You can have this or the state of Rhode Island.’ “

Herring said she has worn her Bulgari necklace at the White House many times, as well as with the kings of Norway and Belgium, the president of Pakistan, the queen of Saudi Arabia, and Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana.

Wyatt’s necklace, made in 1975, was a gift from her husband, Oscar, and features a heart covered in alternating diamonds and blue lapis lazuli, with a giant yellow sapphire in the center.

“The necklace is the kind of thing one could wear with a ballgown or with jeans,” Wyatt said. “Houstonians appreciate anything that is beautiful and chic at the same time, and I think Bulgari encompasses both of those qualities.”

The exhibit is a blend of art, design and nature, museum president Joel Bartsch said.

“Diamonds, rubies and other gems are all natural products of the Earth. We have a fantastic collection of minerals when they come out of the ground, so this represents the other end of the spectrum,” Bartsch said. “It’s about the quality of gems, the taste in design and the science and technology of executing those designs masterfully.”

Greek silversmith Sotirio Bulgari (formerly Voulgaris) opened his first shop in Rome in 1884. By the 1920s, Bulgari was known for chunkier jewelry, rejecting the lightness of the Parisian school dominant in that era. When Italian design and “la dolce vita” swept the world in the 1950s, the firm’s innovative designs transformed the way jewelry was made and worn in the 20th century.

Using gemstones like emeralds, rubies and sapphires, Bulgari displayed a daring sense of color in his designs and was one of the first to use gems based on their aesthetic value rather than their intrinsic worth. Bulgari also rediscovered the ancient Roman cabochon cut, rounding off and polishing gemstones rather than cutting them into facets.

The emergence of Rome as a cinema powerhouse in the 1950s intimately connected the jeweler with the glamour of the film industry. Stars like Taylor, Gina Lollobrigida, Claudia Cardinale, Kirk Douglas, Anna Magnani, Peter Sellers and Audrey Hepburn were known to stop by the Via Condotti shop.

A red-carpet staple for decades, Bulgari jewelry made its way to the silver screen as well. Taylor wore her own Bulgari jewels in three films; Ingrid Bergman, Sophia Loren and Anita Ekberg all wore the brand onscreen.

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