Have an interest in high-end, unique, handmade jewelry? Just a few of the many jewelry houses that influenced contemporary jewelry over the course of the 20th century can honestly claim to have their own artistic style. Perhaps less have been able to remain true to their signature look through the years. One of them is David Webb.
For more than 70 years, Webb’s signature carved and enameled animal bracelets, dramatic gold necklaces, vibrant sautoirs, Maltese cross brooches, dynamic use of pearls and diamonds, and exquisite rock crystal sets are among his most well-known pieces.
David Webb’s calling card was his imagination, which he honed while working as an apprentice for an uncle in the jewelry industry. And what was the very first design he devised, of all things? A spider using his web to sign a copper ashtray!
David Webb’s iconic image is inextricably linked to his rise to prominence amid the glitz and glitter of early 1960s America. In fact, the story began much earlier: David Webb was born in 1925 in Asheville, North Carolina, and began his career as an apprentice in his uncle’s silversmith shop before moving to New York and working in Greenwich Village repairing jewelry.
Webb’s natural charm and creativity soon drew the attention of New York’s social elite, and with the aid of wealthy patron Antoinette Quilleret, he was able to open his own shop in 1945. His new business was so good that he was able to buy out Quilleret in 1948, founding David Webb Inc.
Webb’s self-taught style was brimming with inspiration gleaned from years of studying ancient jewelry from
Greece, Mesopotamia, Central and South America, as well as typical Chinese and Indian jewelry types. Design trends closer to home, of course, played a role in his growth. Over his formative years, the trajectory of American and European jewelry can be narrowly characterized as a shift away from Art Deco’s abstract geometry and toward more exuberant, figurative themes from nature. Cartier, whose prolific partnership between artistic director Jeanne Toussaint
and designer Peter Lemarchand resulted in a plethora of animal motifs, including Cartier’s iconic “Big Cat” jewels from the late 1940s and onwards, helped to popularize the trend. ‘Everything came from Toussaint’s influence, and she naturally inspired all of us,’ Webb said.
Cartier’s figurative jewels and their earlier Indian-influenced ‘Tutti Frutti’ style of the mid 1920s were natural spiritual predecessors to Webb’s jewels, but it was Webb’s creative twist on these motifs that propelled his firm to success. For instance, Webb’s Madison Earrings are as appropriate for the workplace as they are for drinks and dinner; the Connection Necklace, a clever take on nautical ropes, is more of a neck collar that brightens a woman’s face; and the classic Origami Necklace and matching pendant combine elegance and swing in one glamorous piece. David Webb’s gold-and-diamond rings feature geometric patterns inspired by sidewalks, Broadway marquees, highways, and bridges. This is jewelry that celebrates the ever-fashionable on 57th Street, the country’s most glamorous crossroads.
Color and geometry were combined by David Webb, an urban modernist, to create jewelry for women who valued style with a capital “S.” David Webb’s appreciation of architecture is celebrated in the Manhattan Minimalism series. After all, this is the guy who toyed with the idea of being an architect or a jeweler, and whose love of shape and volume eventually manifested itself in his countless bracelets, rings, necklaces, and earrings. Color—introduced by hard stones like turquoise and coral, as well as enamel—and the daily appeal of yellow gold are both important aspects of Manhattan Minimalism.
His creations were admired by some of the most powerful jewelry collectors of the time, including Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The First Lady, recognizing his reputation as the preeminent American jeweler, commissioned him to produce a collection of paperweights showcasing a selection of American minerals to be presented to visiting heads of state. On a state visit to Morocco in March 1963,
King Hassan was presented with a gold figure of an American Eagle inlaid with an American topaz.
Another piece that has stayed in Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ collection exemplifies Webb’s cozy friendship with his glamorous patron. It was a coral paperweight in the style of Cellini. The buff-colored coral had sentimental value because it had been given to President Kennedy as a gift because it came from Kasolo Island in the Solomon Islands, where he was shipwrecked in 1943. In 1966, Jacqueline Kennedy tasked Webb with reworking her late husband’s coral, using it to form the fish tail of a legendary sea-lion, cast in gold, and resting on a larger piece of coral amongst a bed of golden crystals to form the paperweight.
Webb’s animal-themed jewels were particularly popular with a slew of notable clients, including the Duke of Windsor, who purchased an enameled frog bangle for his wife as a surprise gift in March 1964. Even Bombshell and ‘Cleopatra’ actress Elizabeth Taylor wore his chimera bangles! Her piece was a bold reinvention of similar traditional Indian jewelry designs and later Cartier styles, and a host of his other striking designs have found their way into the collections of stars like Ava Gardner, Lana Turner, and Merle Oberon. Harper’s Bazaar’s eccentric editor Diana Vreeland, the era’s sole arbiter of forward-thinking fashion, wore a dramatic striped enamel bangle in the form of a zebra, Webb’s own adopted symbol, as the ultimate endorsement.
David Webb’s remarkable career was unfortunately cut short when he died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 50 in 1975. Despite this devastating loss, the company has continued to produce jewels in the spirit, creativity, and quality that characterized Webb’s enduring style, still from the workshop above his flagship store overlooking the hustle and bustle of Madison Avenue in New York.
Whether in marbled azurmalachite, nebulous rock crystal formations, or richly carved rubies, sapphires, and emeralds, Webb’s ability to generate suspense and sheer visual effect even in his more abstract jewels is on display in this set. Webb’s style is larger-than-life, whimsical, sensual, and unmistakable, thanks to his love of enameling, intricately carved stones, yellow gold, and vivid chromatic combinations. Truly, the brand has forever established itself as a cornerstone of the jewelry community.