Italy's design boom in the early 1960s didn't just bring us cool cars, movie stars - and nicer looking kitchens. That era also marked out the starting point for a new chapter in European jewellery design. And famed Italian jeweller Bulgari, whose flagship store in Rome has dominated the Spanish Steps corner of the Via Condotti since 1905, started it.

The main change was the Roman house's attitude to stones. Rather than stick to the traditional, mostly Parisian, style of tasteful colour combinations, such as emeralds and sapphires with diamonds, Bulgari embraced new, bolder mixes, producing parures of violet, turquoise and green - thereby introducing a notion of using gemstones not so much for their intrinsic value as for their chromatic effect.

A recent trip to the jeweller's workshops and design studio in Rome revealed that today, gemologists and buyers at its Roman design centre are just as enthralled by the potential of the stones Bulgari spends the whole year sourcing. 'When we see a stone that we like, we just look at it and listen,' says one of the in-house buyers working under the direction of Bulgari High Jewellery senior director Giampaolo Della Croce. 'You have to put all things out of your mind for that moment - your experience, the Bulgari history - and just open your eyes and your mind.'

'Stones and creativity go hand in hand,' says Della Croce. Hence, the Bulgari in-house creative team doesn't just tour the world visiting gem merchants and fairs. 'We look for inspiration everywhere, whether at a Brooklyn flea market or an art fair.' he reveals.

The clashing colours and soft, round-cut stones that dominate the Bulgari aesthetic bring an undoubted joyfulness to high jewellery. So it was good to see that the Roman sense of humour infiltrates the making process too - a tiny model toy of cartoon character Shrek is used for casting tests. 'It's the ears,' says one of the workshop assistants, 'you know, the way they stick out. They are quite hard to get right. He's perfect for us.'