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1996 07 28 04:00:00 PDT SAN FRANCISCO Until recently, the Italian luxury jeweler Bulgari, whose intricate, articulated and colorful designs have been worn by everyone from , to and , was perhaps the least known of the great jewelers in America.

That was before the Bulgari family's recent aggressive expansion, both in new markets and in a more varied product line, featuring less pricey items.

You can still buy a $3 million engagement ring with a centerpiece 4.72 carat oval diamond, like the one magician bought for supermodel . Or a $10 million diamond and ruby necklace.

Now, however, anyone with $575 and an appreciation of the finer things in life can own a Bulgari ring.

Come August, San Franciscans will have that option at Bulgari's new store in The City. (Since September 1992, Bulgari has been operating a showroom out of two suites at . Showroom manager will preside over the new store.)

An opening party, benefiting the new will be held Sept. 25, with the Bulgari family in attendance. That same night will see the launch of a new book, Bulgari (Leonardo, and Amanda Triossi, 255 pp.), which offers a definitive look at Bulgari's history.

The new two story, 3,600 square foot store at 237 Post St. is part of Post Street's upscale movement. Located next to Cartier, it's on the same block as Escada, Sulka, , and 's new boutique. Bulgari officials hope to ring up $5 million in sales in the first year.

The new boutique is Bulgari's 10th American store; an 11th opens later this year in Honolulu, making 54 stores worldwide. Plans are to open 10 stores worldwide this year and 10 more in '97, expand the network of 4,360 retailers that carry Bulgari merchandise and extend the Bulgari label's franchise through its three year old fragrance business, watches and other new products.

A week after the Post Street opening, Bulgari's store on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills will re open after extensive renovations.

Recently, Bulgari has been expanding its price points to attract a wider clientele: it now offers a porcelain ring set at the top with a cabochon semi precious stone surrounded by an 18 karat gold bezel for $575 and watches for $1,800.

In fact, Paolo Bulgari, one of the owners and the chief designer, has been known to wear one of the famous plastic watches that his firm introduced in 1994. The $320 wrist watch, which is set in a black plastic case and has a gold movement, blew out of stores and now sells at auction for $1,200 to $1,500.

Bulgari originally lent plastic watches to customers while pricey ones were being fixed, but these loaners became so popular that customers refused to return them. Nobody's fool, Paolo Bulgari decided to launch an official line of the popular, more affordable time pieces.

The strategy of offering moderately priced items seems to be working. Bulgari reports that its 1995 net profits grew by 57.4 percent to $25.2 million.

Today, Bulgari, whose jewelry is noted for its bright colors and the use of unusual materials such as steel and semi precious stones (tourmalines, citrines, amethysts, topazes), is the world's largest luxe jeweler after Tiffany Co. and Cartier.

It is run by , 55, Paolo Bulgari, 59, and , 39, the brothers' nephew, who serves as managing director. shop and others will feature more open layouts, with shoppers entering via revolving doors rather than the imposing, heavily guarded entrances of yore.

Jewelry will be displayed in showcases, so that clients can see what's available, rather than be locked away in vaults. store features caramel woods, cream and pink marble, and glass, including a revolving glass door floating in a huge glass window surrounded by a marble frame.

"Customers today want to see all you have instead of being sat down and having to decide what it is they want and everything being so hushed and quiet," says Moore.

"Of course, we'll still have private rooms for people who want them, but we're really trying to make the stores more user friendly by making them more open."

Bulgari was founded in 1884 by Sotirio Boulgaris, who was descended from an ancient family of Greek silversmiths. An artisan creating and engraving precious objects in silver, he migrated to Italy in 1879 and opened his first shop on Rome's Via Sistina in 1884. In 1905, he moved to the Via dei Condotti, the same street that houses the mothership Bulgari store today.

In the 1930s, his sons took over the by then significant Via dei Condotti operation.

It was the third and fourth generations of the Bulgari family that turned to precious stones and jewelry and brought the company into the future.

Today, Sotirio's grandchildren Paolo and Nicola Bulgari, are trustees of the family's artistic heritage, which has developed to represent a "designed" look. Typical pieces use antique Roman and Greek coins from archaeological digs. Designs are inspired by anything from a beehive, dolphin, stalk of wheat to something as prosaic as a bicycle chain.

"Bulgari has a long history of taking something unusual and precious and mixing it with unusual, non precious things," Moore says.

"One time, Nicola was working on a bicycle, and he had some people take it apart. He looked at the chain and before we knew it, we had a necklace inspired by a bicycle chain,studded with pearls on the side."

For fall, Bulgari introduces two new lines along with expanding its recent collections.

Though the Trika line (from the Greek word for braid), will include gold and diamond jewelry, priced at around $130,000 for earrings, $4,000 for rings and $94,000 for necklaces, there are also two (relatively) less costly lines.

Tubogas2000, a line of tailored but elegant jewelry in woven 18 karat gold and steel based on the design of flexible gas pipes after World War II, offers earrings for about $2,200, bracelets for around $2,400 and necklaces from $8,500.

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