Byline: Michael Marlow

LOS ANGELES — Bulgari is gearing up for a U.S. blitz.
The upscale Italian jeweler and watchmaker is on a mission designed to raise its profile, and its recently opened store in Orange County’s hulking South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, its first in California, is a key step.
In addition, the U.S. division of the Rome-based firm is planning to open several more of its own stores this year and expand wholesale distribution of its watches and fragrance.
“Bulgari is the least known of the great jewelers,” said Nicola Bulgari, owner of Bulgari Corp. of America, in a telephone interview from his office in New York. “We want people to get familiar with the name.”
In terms of its retail agenda, the company has chosen California as one of its key development targets this year.
The Orange County store initially opened Dec. 13 and was feted with a grand opening party earlier this month. The 850-square-foot boutique is on the second floor of South Coast Plaza, tucked between Crate & Barrel and Louis Vuitton. It’s expected to generate more than $2 million in first-year sales, according to Arrigo Berni, general manager of Bulgari Corp. And despite the fact that Orange County itself is in a state of bankruptcy, early sales have been strong with particularly vigorous action in colored gems, rings and bracelets.
According to Bulgari executives, Orange County wasn’t one of the first choices on their short list of possible sites. Berni said he first visited the area on the advice of real estate consultants, who insisted the upscale suburban location was right for Bulgari.
“We have been blind not to see this,” Berni told a crowd at the opening party. “This is so different from what we as Europeans are used to.”
Nevertheless, the fact that California has been a focal point for Bulgari is no accident.
“It was an old dream to come to be in California,” Bulgari said. “I was first in California in 1962 with my parents, and ever since that drive along the coast to San Francisco, I have always loved it.”
Bulgari launched its first store in New York in the Seventies. It currently operates eight U.S. units, including a Houston unit that opened last September. And with stores slated to open later this year in San Francisco as well as on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, the pace of development is becoming more brisk. Sources say Bulgari is also close to signing a deal for a Waikiki, Hawaii, store.
On the wholesale front, expansion in the next few years will include increasing the number of doors where Bulgari sells its watches. Currently, they are carried by 24 fine jewelry retailers in the U.S., but the company is looking to increase that count to between 60 and 70.
It is also beginning wholesale distribution of its women’s fragrance as a way to provide an entry-level price point to those consumers who can’t afford the jewelry. While watches begin at $1,600 and jewelry pieces much higher than that, the fragrance starts at $70. “This will help people not be scared of Bulgari [prices],” Bulgari said.
The firm has inked a deal with Chanel for U.S. distribution, while Bulgari’s daughter, Veronica, is marketing manager for perfume in North and South America. She will oversee a rollout to better-price specialty stores, including a launch at Saks Fifth Avenue later this month.