‘Cleopatra’ May Be 60, but the Jewelry Never Gets Old

Sixty years ago this summer, production finally wrapped on “Cleopatra,” a movie more famous for a scandalous love affair offscreen than the love story from antiquity that was all but lost in the nearly four-hour running time.

While the real Cleopatra may have had that famous asp for an accessory, Elizabeth Taylor as the Egyptian queen turned the Roman jeweler Bulgari into a household name thanks to a certain serpent-inspired watch — all while juggling a jealous fourth husband, a new lover, a three-year filming schedule and, ultimately, a $44 million critically panned turkey of a movie.

Now, as the film world awaits a 2023 “Cleopatra” starring Gal Gadot (“Wonder Woman”), the Egyptomania trend in jewelry that has surfaced periodically through the centuries may be poised for another remake, too.

“I do like to think we’ll see a bib necklace or some armbands, or maybe an asp headdress come from the new ‘Cleopatra,’ and my mind keeps jumping to ‘Wonder Woman’ and those fabulous cuffs she wore,” said Marion Fasel, founder and editorial director of The Adventurine, an online jewelry magazine. “Scarabs are something I can see coming back, too. Lucky charms and talisman keep evolving, but scarabs are an eternal thing.”

And the eternal role that jewelry played during the filming of the 1963 “Cleopatra” at Cinecittà Studios in Rome all started with a bit of mystery surrounding a watch that for many has come to symbolize Bulgari: the Serpenti, a timepiece that coils around the wrist twice, which Ms. Taylor somehow acquired during her time in Italy.

Was the diamond and gold gift from her then-husband, the ’50s heartthrob singer Eddie Fisher? Or perhaps it was from Richard Burton, her lover and co-star (playing Mark Antony, who, in an art-mirrors-life bit of irony, was the lover of the real Cleopatra). Or did Taylor buy it for herself?

“One of Bulgari’s first serpent watches appears on her in a photo from the set of ‘Cleopatra,’ and we know it was sold in 1962, but there’s no record accounting for who purchased it,” said Amanda Triossi, a consultant based in Rome who helped form Bulgari’s permanent collection of jewels, watches and precious objects in her 18-year career there. “It’s a question mark. Who gave it to her?”

No one seems to know. But, Ms. Triossi said, perhaps it was no surprise that the actress was drawn to the Serpenti: “Snakes in jewelry are a constant, especially as a bracelet. In ancient Rome and Egypt, people had snake amulets.”

Ms. Taylor’s own jewelry and the costume jewelry she wore in the movie (she reportedly had 65 costume changes) became fodder for years of magazine, newspaper and television coverage.

“Obviously, it was a defining moment for jewelry that is now sadly gone, along with the era of ‘la dolce vita’ and an amazing love story,” said Stefano Papi, a jewelry expert, author and historian who has worked for both Sotheby’s and Christie’s. “It was a period when jewelry was so important as an image. Elizabeth Taylor was on every cover of every magazine in jewels.”

The actress’s list of both husbands and jewelry began in 1950 at age 18 when she married Conrad Hilton Jr., known as Nicky, who gave her a four-carat diamond platinum-set engagement ring. The marriage lasted eight months. Husband No. 2, the British actor Michael Wilding, 20 years her senior, gave her a diamond-studded sapphire ring. But it was her third husband, the Hollywood producer Mike Todd, who lavished her with jewels, including a Cartier parure featuring a ruby and diamond necklace, bracelet and earrings.

Most famously, he presented her with a 19th-century diamond tiara that she wore to the Oscars in 1957, the year his film “Around the World in 80 Days” won for best picture (that tiara sold for more than $4 million at auction after Ms. Taylor’s death in 2011).

In 1961 she wore diamond and pearl pendant earrings from Ruser, a popular midcentury Hollywood jeweler, when she won the Oscar for best actress, for her performance in “BUtterfield 8.” (Her second win was in 1967 for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”)

But her love affair with Mr. Burton — and waning marriage to Mr. Fisher — seemed to kick her desire for jewelry into high gear, something Mr. Fisher seems to have played upon at the time.

“In February 1962, Eddie Fisher went to Bulgari in Rome and purchased quite a few yellow diamond jewels, drop earrings, a ring and a flower-spray brooch to try to woo her back,” Ms. Triossi said. “Eddie decided to try the Bulgari card.”

Yet Ms. Taylor left Mr. Fisher, and Mr. Burton became husband No. 5 the year after “Cleopatra” opened.

“Elizabeth joked in her book, ‘My Love Affair with Jewelry,’ that, when she didn’t come back to him, Fisher presented her with a bill,” Ms. Triossi said (the 2002 book does not mention the serpent watch).

Some film historians have theorized that the Taylor-Burton affair may have been the best thing to happen to “Cleopatra,” which became the biggest box-office hit of the year (and garnered four Oscars, but only in technical categories).

Credit…Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times, via Getty Images

And jewelry historians have said much the same about Bulgari. “The only word Elizabeth knows in Italian is Bulgari,” Mr. Burton reportedly once said. “I introduced Liz to beer, she introduced me to Bulgari.”

It was quite an introduction. “This time was so iconic for Bulgari and a turning point in our brand evolution,” said Lucia Boscaini, the house’s brand curator. “It created a bond that has a huge impact to this day. It’s such a passionate story.”

The jewelry house was founded in 1884 in Rome by Sotirio Bulgari, a Greek silversmith. By the 1940s, it had moved into gold work and introduced the Serpenti design; by the 1960s, cabochons — shaped and polished precious and semiprecious gems and stones — had become a brand hallmark.

Bulgari has kept its connection to Ms. Taylor alive as the decades passed. In 2016, for example, its “SerpentiForm” exhibition in Rome included four of her “Cleopatra” costumes.

Mr. Burton’s gifts to the actress from other jewelry houses included a 69.42-carat pear-shape diamond ring by Harry Winston. It became known as the Taylor-Burton diamond, and she later had it made into a necklace, which she wore at the 1970 Oscars when presenting the best picture award to “Midnight Cowboy.”

He also presented a pearl, ruby and diamond necklace by Cartier — the main pearl had been a gift from King Philip II of Spain to Mary Tudor. (It sold for nearly $12 million when Christie’s auctioned 80 pieces of her jewelry, including the tiara from Mr. Todd, for $116 million after her death in 2011.

“Elizabeth Taylor really understood the quality of jewels,” Mr. Papi said. “There was an emotional connection. Nowadays, the jewels on the red carpet are all loaned. It’s just big names wearing big names.”

A few of her most famous Bulgari pieces — purchased, like the Serpenti watch, at the house’s flagship on the Via dei Condotti in Rome — included an emerald and diamond brooch in 1963. For their engagement in 1964, Mr. Burton commissioned a matching necklace.

“There is a picture of Elizabeth Taylor at her 31st birthday party on the set of ‘Cleopatra’ in 1963 with the huge Colombian emerald and diamond brooch that became part of the necklace later,” Ms. Boscaini said. “They both got their divorces and then Burton came back to Bulgari and bought a necklace, and the emeralds matched well. We added the brooch and modified it a bit by adding a hook.”

Mr. Burton also presented the actress with an 18.6-carat emerald ring surrounded by pear-cut diamonds from Bulgari on their wedding day. (It was their first wedding; the couple divorced in 1974, remarried in 1975 and divorced again less than a year later.)

During their first marriage, there was the 33.19-carat Type IIa Krupp Diamond that Mr. Burton reportedly bought for $305,000 in 1968. From Bulgari, there was a sapphire and diamond sautoir necklace with a 65-carat center stone that he gave Ms. Taylor for her 40th birthday in 1972 (Mr. Burton bought it for an estimated $600,000 to $800,000; Bulgari bought it back at auction for nearly $6 million, in addition to several other Taylor-owned jewels over the last decade or so for its permanent Heritage Collection).

Jessica Chastain, nominated for a best actress Oscar this year for “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” wore the sautoir necklace at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, which showed a restored version of “Cleopatra” for its 50th anniversary.

Ms. Taylor’s passion for jewelry never wavered. Marina Cicogna, an Italian film producer (“Belle du Jour,” among others) and socialite whose grandfather created the Venice Film Festival, recalled in a recent phone interview from Rome a favorite moment in her long friendship with the actress. One night in London in late 1967, she and Ms. Taylor had attended a play starring Mr. Burton. The two women returned to Ms. Taylor’s hotel room (probably at The Dorchester, she said, but she couldn’t be sure) for a nightcap.

“She was returning to Los Angeles the next morning, and for some reason had to leave her jewelry behind,” Ms. Cicogna said. “So she spread them all out on the bed and kissed them all goodbye.”

The Taylor-Burton film certainly wasn’t the first telling of the doomed love affair between the pharoah-queen and Roman politician-general. There was Plutarch’s account 200 years after their deaths. Shakespeare’s play in the 1600s. Two films in the silent era and one in the 1930s starring Claudette Colbert. And dozens of movies and TV shows. A new “Cleopatra” was bound to come along.

“It would be interesting to see the new ‘Cleopatra,’” Ms. Boscaini said. But “Elizabeth Taylor was so much more than just an actress wearing jewelry and playing Cleopatra. She was a woman in control, and she broke all the rules.”

As the Cleopatra fascination is bound to return over the next year or so, the diffuse nature of modern entertainment makes it unlikely to come close to the phenomenon of 60 years ago.

“They’re redoing ‘Cleopatra,’ but that’s like remaking ‘Gone With the Wind’ without Vivien Leigh,” Mr. Papi said. “It’s the love story within the love story that is just as interesting. Maybe they should just make a movie on the shooting of the Elizabeth Taylor ‘Cleopatra.’”

Katheleen Knopf

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