How David Webb Elevated Jewelry into Art

How David Webb Elevated Jewelry into Art

Webb’s enchanting jewelry designs were informed by a deep love for visual art and history, writes the author of the definitive monograph on the designer.
Webb’s enchanting jewelry designs were informed by a deep love for visual art and history, writes the author of the definitive monograph on the designer.

D avid Webb was a time traveler. Through his weekly strolls in New York City to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, visits to art galleries and prowling the city’s Fourth Avenue rare book stores and antique shops, the jewelry designer became an itinerant denizen of the arts of other cultures and faraway lands. This is also when he began building his reference library and collecting the Regency furniture and Chinese decorative arts with which he decorated his homes. He was especially drawn to ancient jade, which often formed the basis for his one-of-a-kind cuffs, sautoirs or striking neck collars, such as the Martha Graham Double Dragon Necklace, 1972, with its two large jade plaques. He was a cultured man who took comfort in looking back to history for design ideas.

Ancient Greek hammered gold, Etruscan granulation, Mayan iconography, the controlled contours of the Art Deco and modernist architecture were all filtered through David Webb’s innate sense of design and passion for art. As he once said, “I had a tremendous feeling for art in me.”

It was that reverence for art that propelled Webb to make jewelry that he hoped would be museum worthy. In the only article he wrote, “Why Not Hang Gems?” in 1963, he reasoned that jewelry should be shown in museums, alongside other artworks. To that end, he schooled himself with such books as Greek Gold: Jewelry from the Age of Alexander, The Splendor of Scythian Art, Art Treasures of Turkey, Orders and Decorations, 5,000 Years of Chinese Jade. Each was a journey to another time and place, and each served to educate Webb’s eager mind. Eclecticism was his coin of the realm. He collected books for seamen, the Encyclopedia of Knots and Fancy Rope Work; for botanists, Great Flower Books 1700–1900; even for children, The Big Book of Wild Animals. Many of the various objets d’art that he made in 1966 for a charity art exhibition, held under the patronage of the Duchess of Windsor, were inspired by his book on the famous Green Vault in Dresden.

A spread from the author’s monograph on David Webb illustrates how the designer’s Martha Graham Double Dragon Necklace was inspired by jade jewelry.
“Jewelry and objects of art four thousand years old are newer than anything we have today.”
- David Webb

At 17, Webb arrived in New York City as a young man from Asheville, North Carolina. By that time, he had already apprenticed at his uncle’s local jewelry store when he was 14, finished high school and served in the army. New York was his first real visit to another world, where the pace of the city and its broad offerings immediately enchanted him.

In 1948, at the age of 23, he opened shop, and success followed in short order. His jewelry was featured on the cover of Vogue in 1950; his animal bracelets became de rigueur accessories for the ladies-who-lunch set; Jackie Kennedy selected him to make the official Gifts of State for the Kennedy administration; he received a Coty Award for Jewelry Design, in 1964, the second Coty given for jewelry; and by the mid-60s the biggest names in New York, Palm Beach, Hollywood and pretty much all of Texas were dedicated clientele. Elizabeth Taylor, always eager to collect jewelry, was feted with private showings at the Plaza Hotel when she came to town. Her many purchases included a makara, David Webb’s first-ever animal bracelet, designed 1957 and based on Achaemenid gold and turquoise bracelets, c. 550-330 BCE, and an especially striking cabochon sapphire, coral and white enamel Maltese cross brooch.

From the 1950s forward, David Webb jewelry has been featured in the fashion magazines: it pops on the page and partners seamlessly with couture. Small wonder the New Yorker magazine anointed him “one of the most creative meteors around town.”

Gold, Enamel, Emerald and Diamond Cuff-Bracelet (ESTIMATE: $40,000-60,000); Coral and Diamond Bracelet and Pair of Earclips (Estimate: $20,000-30,000); GOLD AND EMERALD CUFF-BRACELET (ESTIMATE: $12,000-15,000)
“I had a tremendous feeling for art in me.”
- David Webb

What continually set the jeweler apart was how art, from all periods and places, fueled his designs. A Scythian pommel that he saw in an exhibition at the Met in 1959 became the gem-covered Coiled Dragon Brooch, 1972. Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome gave birth to the Geodesic Dome Ring, 1965, its brilliant-cut diamonds set in a gold cage of sorts, a golden stand-in for the struts of the actual dome. Jewelry of the Art Deco was deeply influential, and turned up in many works, especially those rich with black enamel and coral or with scored rock crystal. The Groove Necklace of 1972, for example, is directly inspired by a similar pendant made by Jean Fouquet in 1929. And that animal book? It was the source for a number of animal-themed works, including the iconic Zebra Bracelet, 1963, the mascot for the company.

From the art museum to the city street, the company David Webb founded 75 years ago has been making jewelry that draws from the arts of our collective past. The result is uniquely fresh, bold and modern.

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