By  on March 19, 2007

After amping up product categories and sharpening retail strategies in Europe and Asia, Bulgari, the Roman jewelry firm, is expanding in the Americas.

The company, founded by Sotirio Bulgaris in the first half of the 19th century in Pindhos, Greece, then soon moving to Rome's Via Condotti, is marking the renewed U.S. focus this week with the opening of its redesigned Manhattan flagship on one of retail's most famous junctions: Fifth Avenue and 57th Street.

"New York is the most important market for us in the U.S.," said Francesco Trapani, the brand's chief executive officer. "We have a very aggressive plan for the next three to five years [in the U.S.]."

The brand has 15 stores in the U.S., including locations in San Francisco, Chicago, Honolulu and Las Vegas. There are plans to open 15 to 20 units within three to five years in several locales, including Boca Raton, Fla. In South America, stores are on tap in Bogota, Colombia; São Paolo, Brazil and Caracas, Venezuela. The company has 185 stores in 22 countries.

The 13,590-square-foot Manhattan store opened in 1989 and closed for renovations about a year ago. It is Bulgari's largest U.S. store.

The overhauled store has an additional 1,000 square feet of selling space because of a new mezzanine, and is lighter and breezier, with partitions and small vitrines inset in curving walls. The space exemplifies a contemporary aesthetic, with an angular backlit staircase made of copper-finished steel, Margaritelli wood floors, Roman-inspired Trani marble walls, chrome and glass cases and a 21-foot glass facade.

The 11 large vitrines that wrap around the Fifth Avenue and 57th Street sides will be filled starting next month with rare and antique jewelry, watches and precious evening bags from the company's vintage museum collection in celebration of the store opening.

The main floor will house one-of-a-kind high jewelry, day jewelry and watches. Retail prices range from $750 for a gold BZero1 ring to more than $5 million for a 28-carat ruby and diamond ring. Watch prices go from $1,400 to $150,000 for a limited edition watch with multiple complications.

The mezzanine and second floor will offer accessories, a segment of the business the brand is intent on growing. Last year, the firm's leather and exotic-skin handbags, eyewear, scarves, men's ties and small leather goods were merchandised together in Bulgari's first accessories-only stores. Bulgari handbags range from $700 to $6,000 and higher for special pieces.Accessories-only Bulgari stores now operate in Milan and Florence, although Trapani said he has no plans to open a dedicated accessories space in New York.

"The accessories market is very big and it's growing," said Trapani, who added that the firm's accessories sales have reached 100 million euros, or $133 million at current exchange. "But of course, we are a small company in this arena. We are focusing the attention to addition to building our own distribution network."

Trapani named Prada and Chanel as competitors in accessories.

High jewelry and precious ladies' watches are top sellers, he said, and indicated that the watch that will be launched next month at Baselworld Watch & Jewelry Show in Basel, Switzerland, would be an all-gold watchcase with a gold bracelet.

The New York store will offer limited edition coin necklaces with Roman coins from the fifth century B.C. The coins, which are set into gold pendants and evening bags, are from the personal collection of third-generation Bulgari family member and company chairman, Nicola Bulgari.

Bulgari is so entwined in its Roman history that it also wants to support it. Next month, the company will host the opening fete for the new Greek and Roman Galleries at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The company also has its eye on enterprises that fall outside of the jewelry and fashion category. In addition to working on a skin care line to be launched in Italy this year, the company is going to expand its new hotel business, scouting locations in New York and Paris. There are two Bulgari Hotels & Resorts, in Milan and Bali, Indonesia, that have a modern, but classically Roman, ambience.

"The fact that we have a long history and heritage is a company advantage," Trapani said.

In January, Bulgari reported fourth-quarter sales rose 4 percent to 323.6 million euros, or $417.4 million. For the year ended Dec. 31, sales were up 10 percent to 1.01 billion euros, or $1.27 billion.

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