Rich Europeans with a taste for showy jewels have been wearing Bulgari baubles for decades. But in the U.S. it was hardly a household name—until the evening of March 13, 1975, when dashing man-about-Rome Gianni Bulgari (pronounced BOOL-gah-ree) was abducted from his limousine by four masked kidnappers, and his (and the firm's) name was splashed onto the front pages. Eventually his family paid out some $2 million in ransom and his brothers, Paolo and Nicola, found Gianni in a fashionable Roman street, bearded and drowsy with chloroform. "You couldn't have bought that kind of publicity for four million," one of Gianni's pals commented sardonically. Shrugs Gianni, "I have to admit it's probably true."

Six years later the trauma of the kidnapping has faded. Gianni and his brothers, the third generation of Bulgari jewelers, are busily overseeing an expanding empire, which by conservative estimates grosses $50 million a year. Gianni, 46, and Paolo, 43, oversee the European operation; the baby, Nicola, 40, the North American business.

"We design and make jewelry better than anybody else. We really do," Nicola boasts, and their status-symbol watches and jewels have made believers of some of the world's most photographed women, from Sophia Loren to Princess Grace. The Shah of Iran used to buy Bulgari, and these days patrons include Candy Bergen and Barbara Sinatra. Both of them own the firm's popular (and much copied) flat necklace featuring an ancient coin or two or more plucked from as far back as Roman and Etruscan times. Set in a chain of heavy gold links, it costs $3,900 to $125,000. Another favorite is the necklace set with cabochon jewels. "No limit," says Nicola about the price, which starts at $3,000 and soars on up. But the House of Bulgari makes a point, too, of offering more plebeian items, to wit, a sterling silver Coca-Cola glass with 14-karat gold straw ($1,000), a silver-and-gold tennis ball stamped BVLGARI ($1,400) and a sterling silver postcard complete with its own 18-karat stamp ($550).

The Bulgari who started all this grandeur was Sotirio, who arrived in Rome on February 18, 1881 with 18 cents in his pocket. He had fled his native Greece during the Turkish massacres and ended up selling silver trinkets at the top of the Spanish Steps in Rome. It was his son Giorgio—Gianni's father—who remodeled the flagship store on the Via Condotti. "Its marble facade was a major factor in our becoming the most important jewelers in Italy," concedes Gianni with a shrug, adding, "One day I took a good look at the imposing facade as I walked past and said, 'My God, I wouldn't go in there.' "

The most management-minded member of the family, Gianni was born in Rome. Comments a family observer, "They are typical boys who have been raised by chauffeurs. They should be at ease anywhere. But they are not." Trained as a lawyer, Gianni restlessly took up sports car racing, and the legendary Enzo Ferrari asked him to be an official driver. He cultivated his playboy reputation during the years he squired the likes of Gina Lollobrigida. Unlike his brothers, he has not married, although for the last few years he has been living with Nicole Sieff, 40ish, the mother of his 4-year-old son, Giorgio.

"Gianni took it for granted that his wife would be a virgin," sighs Nicole, who had two sons by her marriage to Jonathan Sieff, son of Lord Sieff, head of the Marks & Spencer department stores in Britain. "When he became interested in me, he didn't know what to do," Nicole adds. "It didn't fit in with his idea of things." Nicole chides Gianni for neglecting their jet-set clientele, many of whom are her friends. "I told him he should send flowers to the clients," snips Nicole. "But he just won't do it."

These days Gianni has his mind on loftier details—expansion, for one. Not content with their outposts in Paris, Geneva, Monte Carlo and Manhattan, he and his brothers plan to open two more shops in the U.S.—in Houston and Beverly Hills. And he is busy this spring shaping up BVLGARI jewels so dazzling he hopes they will become status symbols for the 1980s. As for his own status, the playboy in Gianni refuses to give up. "I want," he insists, "to die a bachelor."