Behind many great watch and jewelry brands in the world, there are larger stories and extended passions. Such is the case with Bulgari, where Nicola Bulgari, rated on Forbes Lists 2016 of the World’s Billionaires, brings his passion for vintage American automobiles to a new height. In fact, his love of fine 1930’s and 1940’s every-day drivers such as Buicks and Oldsmobiles, underscores the new endeavors he is making to preserve history for the future.
At a recent “Watches & Engines” event with Bulgari, we got an inside look at Nicola Bulgari’s extensive collection of American vintage cars, as well as at some of the brand’s record-breaking watches. In Allentown, PA, the 76-year-old Nicola Bulgari — one of several grandsons of the founder of the eponymous luxury brand that is now controlled by the LVMH Group – owns and operates a 20+-acre compound, the NB Center for American Automotive Heritage, that houses his approximately 150-car collection (it should be noted that he also has a car collection in Italy).
Additionally, at the NB Center – designed to raise the profile of cars from America’s automotive golden years to new heights by establishing world-class museum ratings – Bulgari has also implemented a new division designed to document the origins and pedigree of any vintage car. The museum and the provenance division augment the already-established vintage restoration facility on the premises, run by restorer Keith Flickinger and team.
Nicola Bulgari, still chairman of the brand, has long had a love affair with American-made cars. As a young boy growing up in Rome, he would see the Hollywood movie motorcades come through and would marvel at the sleek curves of the big cars. At the age of 21, he visited the Vatican in a private tour and witnessed several American cars in the garages. They captured his heart and he vowed one day to own them.
In 1972, almost 45 years ago, when he moved to America, he indulged his passions for those cars and purchased a few. A “few “has since turned to a few hundred. Today, he has come full circle – owning each of the cars that he once saw in the Vatican, as well as an incredible collection of American classics. He and Flickinger, who has become a life-long best friend, seek out the cars, ship them to the Allentown facility for restoration to original condition, and house them in one of many hangars that comprise the on-site museum.
Bulgari also insists the cars be driven. According to Flickinger, Bulgari says these fine cars are not art meant to hang on a wall, but rather useful parts of Americana history that are meant to serve their purpose. Whenever he is in the USA (5-6 times a year), Bulgari drives a good number of the cars. In fact, he has set up his own studio apartment right inside one of the hangars of the museum. The space is a larger-than-most studio loft with full glass windows so he can stare down at the breathtaking beauties at all hours of the day and night. Flickinger says that Bulgari even calls him sometimes from Italy to request Flickinger take a particular car home at night to give it road time.
Nicola Bulgari’s passion for wonderful cars and engines is not unlike the brand’s obsessive passion for turning out some of the finest watches on the market – including several history-making timepieces.
Recently, I was able to tour the NB Center and see, touch, and ride in these wonderful cars – side-by-side with the rare opportunity to see, touch, and wear some of the most complicated Bulgari watches yet to be made. In fact, during the “Watches and Engines” event, Bulgari brought in the recently unveiled world-record-setting Octo Finissimo Minute Repeater, as well as the 2015 record-setting Octo Finissimo Tourbillon (each winning accolades for the “thinnest” of its kind). Also on hand were the new Octo UltraNero Tourbillon with black-clad case and dial, but rose gold hands and accents for a modern take on a classic escapement. For a twist, Bulgari also brought in a new high-jeweled Serpenti Incantati – entirely set with more than 250 brilliant-cut diamonds.
For me, though, the Octo Finissimo Skeleton was the star of the “Watches” portion of the event. Equipped with the Manufacture Caliber BVL 128SK mechanical hand-wound movement measures just 2.35 mm thin – and offers an amazing 65 hours of power reserve. Cased in black DLC steel with blackened, meticulously-finished, skeletonized movement parts and black sup-seconds chapter ring, the watch is as mesmerizing as one of the perfectly restored engines of the vintage cars.