The Bold Artistry Of David Webb
“Everybody wants something original. Women will shop all day for originality. Design is the most important thing.” -- David Webb
David Webb’s remarkable story begins in 1925, when he was born in Asheville, North Carolina. As a young child, he was always creative, and began apprenticing with his uncle, who was in jewelry manufacturing at the time. A modest training, focusing on mainly silversmithing, David Webb’s first designs included small trinkets, such as ashtrays and miniature jewelry boxes. Webb’s thirst for big city life, and inherent self-starter drive, led him to New York City quickly, and at the age of 23, he opened his own shop in Manhattan in 1948. A gregarious man who was drawn to the social elite, Webb found his stride in New York City, with daytime visits to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and dinner parties with socialites and friends that would later become loyal clients.
There are a number of core pillars in the David Webb brand, each more unique and artisanal than the next. Known first and foremost as the “Houdini of Gold,” Webb’s ambition was to make the new look old, inspired by weekly trips to the nearby Metropolitan Museum of Art to study gold objects from the Incas, from Turkey and Syria, from Egyptian artifacts unearthed in the tombs of Tutankhamun, refashioning them for his designs. Studying the composition of gold, he came up with alloys that had the patina of ancient gold. Teaching himself characteristics of different cultures, glyphs and symbols from ancient times found their way onto incised patterning on gold collar and sautoir necklaces. Tending more towards geometric and architectural forms, he incorporated Celtic forms, Mayan stepped pyramids, Chinese Ru-yi and ushnisha, and Greek inverted C-scrolls into a number of his designs.
Perhaps best known for his distinctive carved and hand-painted enamel animal bracelets, David Webb’s bejeweled zoo of creatures includes frogs, zebras, snakes, monkeys, elephants, horses, and all the big cats, ranging from lions to tigers and leopards to panthers. The first conceptual animal bracelet came in 1957 in the form of the mythical Chimera, but by 1963, the company had an Animal Kingdom all their own, that was truly unique among jewelers at the time. It was for these designs that David Webb won the prestigious Coty American Fashion Critics’ Award in 1964, and the world took notice of the firm’s intricate, bold, and artful designs.
David Webb’s use of hand-painted enameling didn’t stop with his animals, but expanded into multiple collections. Ever the urban modernist, he favored combining color with geometry and a love of architecture, creating lines and pools of enamel to balance the dramatic color of hard stones, such as turquoise, tiger’s eye, and coral. The art of the design always came first for Webb, who frequently looked to the buildings of Manhattan to inspire him, often resulting in a pronounced Art Deco design voice throughout many of his pieces. The city sophisticates of the time, and to this day, will frequently be spotted on the post Upper East Side wearing the designer’s elegant collections, which have everyday appeal of yellow gold, the casual combination of color, and the luxurious diamonds and gemstones all paired together in a festive display of what the brand calls “Everyday Revelry.”
David Webb’s designs frequently held diamonds, but rarely were they made center-stage of the piece. Webb felt that diamonds should be used to balance various pieces, setting them in his hand-hammered yellow golds, setting them next to more inexpensive, colorful hardstones and semi-precious stones, enabling them to be more wearable from day to night, which was quite appealing for women at the time. As David Webb himself once said, “women are tired of jewelry-looking jewelry,” and thus, he designed for his clientele rather than following the styles of the time, which led to women of great and notable stature being drawn specifically to his pieces. Betsy Bloomingdale, Diana Vreelance, and Gloria Vanderbilt, among numerous others, were all loyal fans and friends of Webb.
By the end of the 1960s, the social elite of New York and Hollywood alike were seen wearing their David Webb pieces, with even animal lover Elizabeth Taylor becoming a devoted client, wearing her diamond-studded lion and pearl jewelry in her films. David Webb was also a favorite of First Lady Jackie Kennedy at the time, commissioning him to create several official Gifts of State. The year 1975 brought many changes to David Webb, hyper successful in his field and featured on the covers of such fashion magazines as Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and Town & Country, when he sadly passed away at the young age of 50, little more than a quarter-century after founding his company. The company was taken over by Webb’s business partner and was sold to two new owners, and is still producing pieces today. Since that time, the brand’s archive, which has over 40,000 drawings, some of which were never realized, work hand-in-hand with the workshop on Madison Avenue to create restored David Webb original designs for today’s clientele. David Webb, widely known as the “quintessential American jeweler,” is heralded as one of the country’s most important and distinguished jewelers of his time.