“The traffic is never this bad!” exclaims Lucia Silvestri, Bulgari’s jewelry creative director. We’re in an air-conditioned Kia Carnival that is now at a standstill in the crowded streets of Jaipur. She’s right, says our driver, as he explains we’re caught in the middle of a protest. Silvestri would know; she’s been visiting the Pink City to source precious gems for decades. “It was like a movie the first time I visited,” the softly-spoken Silvestri says. “I was with Mr Bulgari so it was extra special. Everyone looked at us like he was Indiana Jones searching for precious stones. Imagine, 40 years ago coming to these places was crazy for me, the gems were being sold from people’s pockets in the street.”
Renowned for emeralds, rubies, and sapphires, Jaipur is the world trading center in colored gems. It’s hardly surprising that the minute Silvestri arrives in town, her Instagram is flooded with over 100 messages from local jewel dealers all hoping to snare a lucrative appointment. Silvestri is always in demand and doesn’t pull any punches as she only wants the best gems – and will wait years if she has to. “You have to have patience, as timing is everything. Buyers believe there’s always a perfect time to acquire a stone, to cut it, and to sell it,” she says.
An exception in the world of jewels, Silvestri not only chooses precious stones but is involved in the design process through to completion. Her first appointment is with gem dealer Vicky, who cuts a chic figure and is based between Jaipur and New York. Just like Aladdin’s Cave, his boardroom table is a smorgasbord of rainbow-colored gems before he reveals the pièce de résistance – a unique string of rubellite beads with a centerpiece of 100ct from Brazil. There are an impressive 1 600ct in total. “The color! Wow. It’s hot pink,” exclaims Silvestri, as her eyes light up. Next, he reveals a rare 86.88ct pink topaz. “Beautiful…” sighs Silvestri, as she admires the stone, which was found in the same mine as the beads. Silvestri takes pictures to share with her 124 000 loyal Instagram followers.
“We’re like family but we fight when it comes to prices,” Vicky says, a telling hint of the cost of these finds. Silvestri agrees. She knows exactly what works for the Italian fashion house and she’s a shrewd negotiator, having worked her way up the company from sorting diamonds in the Rome headquarters when she was 18 to gem hunting around the world for one-of-a-kind stones. “I was taught at a very early age to never buy a stone unless you know how to use it,” she says. It’s a lesson that’s stood the test of time. As the convoy heads to a key address in Silvestri’s little black book of Jaipur, colorful saris gently blow in the breeze as women whizz past on mopeds, and a throng of rickshaws hurtle past a cow, which has wandered into the middle of the chaos.
Entering Gem Palace feels like stepping back in time. Famous faces adorn the walls and the guest book features autographs of the who’s who of royals and celebrities, from the former first lady of the US Jackie Kennedy to King Charles; it’s the perfect backdrop for the legendary jewelers of the Maharajas. “It’s like a treasure trove here and Samir [Kasliwal] is great at discovering jewels,” Silvestri tells us as she greets the half-Italian partner, who’s proudly the eighth generation of the family-run business.
Silvestri knows the family well through Bulgari and has much love for the renowned establishment. “I love to come here for inspiration,” she tells us. Making a sartorial statement in a red kurta, Silvestri enjoys being immersed in the Rajasthani culture and will adapt her wardrobe accordingly – whether she’s in India, Japan, or New York. Her precious stones are usually her favorite accessories, including her much-loved rubellite and turquoise ring with pavé diamonds, or her turquoise beads.
A game-changer in the world of gems, which is notoriously a male-dominated world, Silvestri says, “At first, the dealers refused to do negotiations with me so celebrating 10 years as Bulgari’s jewelry creative director, I’m proud to have paved the way for so many young women to even consider a career in the gem industry. I’m humbled by the number of girls who message me on social media to tell me they didn’t even realize it was a possibility.” Often asked about the secret to her success, she cites “passion, determination, and a real love for precious stones. Gems are a gift of nature so working with them is a gift. I travel all over the world several times a year so it’s not been without sacrifices… My marriage was the ultimate sacrifice but it’s been a true love story with Bulgari as we’re still together after 40 years.”
Our final appointment takes us to a sprawling mansion designed by a Mumbai-based architect, furnished with Italian pieces and art collected from various corners of the world. It also boasts an indoor courtyard, spa, and home cinema. Among the biggest dealers, Silvestri is welcomed like family, and Rajeev is no exception as his mother prepares a traditional homemade Indian lunch for our entourage. Silvestri is held in the highest regard and was a special guest at his wedding a decade ago. As the pair shares memories, Rajeev unveils his latest finds. The elegant Italian has promised herself she won’t add to her personal collection but can’t resist asking for the price of some pieces. “Mr Bulgari knows me too well. He’s always asking me how the trip was and what I bought for myself,” she laughs.
Originally published in the May 2023 issue of Vogue Arabia