One of the most powerful ways to transform one’s look or capture an expression of style is through jewellery. None understood this better than David Webb. Often referred to as the quintessential American jeweller, David Webb’s jewels captured the zeitgeist of the 1960s and ‘70s.
Appealing to a new generation of independent American working women, David Webb’s design aesthetic revolved around creating visual impact and drama. He approached jewels as ‘wearable art’. His unique creations were characterised by bold sculptural forms, textured surfaces, and strong colours. The designs were informed by an idiosyncratic mix of naturalistic themes, aristocratic heraldic motifs, architectural elements from past civilizations, and animal themed jewels from antiquity. Drawing on the myths and legends of the ancient Aztec, Mayan, Chinese and Indian cultures, Webb introduced a level of scholarship and added complexity overlaid with a layer of wittiness to his creations.
David Webb was born in 1925 in Asheville, North Carolina. Whilst working as an apprentice silversmith to his uncle, he soon discovered his aptitude for design. Determined to make his mark in the industry, in 1941 at age 16, he moved to New York City where he found work with a jeweller in Greenwich Village. It was not long before Webb’s natural charm and talent brought him to the attention of New York’s social elite. With the backing of a wealthy patron Antoinette Quilleret, in 1945 Webb opened his own store. The fledgling business soon met with enough success that in 1948 he was able to buy out Quilleret, establishing David Webb Inc. at 2 West 46th Street and later in 1957 moving uptown to 7 East 57th Street.
By the late 1950s and ‘60s, Webb had gathered a large following, attracted to his jewellery creations for their empowering nature; the unique designs having an almost talismanic like effect on the wearer. Modelled in hammered gold, vibrantly deep enamels, carved crystals and an arresting mix of colourful gemstones, his sought-after jewels imbued the wearer with a feeling of confidence and energy.
His patrons included the doyens of New York society, movie stars, and fashion editors. Gloria Vanderbilt, Brooke Astor, Evelyn Lauder, Elizabeth Taylor, Doris Day, Barbra Streisand, Doris Duke and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis were often spotted wearing his bracelets, brooches, rings and necklaces. For Webb, in 1963 the ultimate style endorsement came from the supreme arbiter of forward-thinking fashion of the era: the eccentric editor of Harper’s Bazaar, Diana Vreeland, who cherished a spectacular striped black and white enamel bangle modelled as a zebra. The zoomorphic shape invokes both zebra and seahorse, even a snake biting its own tail, representing a traditional symbol of eternity or eternal renewal. The bold black and white stripes play into the emerging Pop and Op Art movements of the era. In 2019, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City added Webb’s iconic zebra bracelet to its permanent collection.
Tragically, Webb died at age 50. However, the firm he founded continues, creating jewellery drawing on his archive of more than 40,000 original renderings and drawings. He has left a legacy that embodies glamour and sophistication, plus a touch of over-the-top whimsy.
HAMISH SHARMA / Head of Important Jewels