How David Webb Elevated Jewelry into Art

How David Webb Elevated Jewelry into Art

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

About David Webb

David Webb was a time traveler. Through his weekly strolls in New York City, David Webb became an itinerant denizen of the arts of other cultures and faraway lands. He enjoyed visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art, art galleries and browsing Fourth Avenue rare book stores and antique shops. This is also when he began building his reference library. David Webb collected Regency furniture and Chinese decorative arts with which he decorated his homes. He was especially drawn to ancient jade when creating his designs. The Martha Graham Double Dragon Necklace created in 1972had two large jade plaques. He was a cultured man who took comfort in looking back to history for design ideas.

David Webb jewelry took inspiration from Ancient Greek hammered gold, Etruscan granulation, Mayan iconography, the controlled contours of the Art Deco and modernist architecture. David Webb had an innate sense of design and passion for art. As he once said, “I had a tremendous feeling for art in me.”

David Webb Jewelry

David Webb created jewelry he hopped 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. David Webb 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 under the patronage of the Duchess of Windsor, were inspired by his book on the famous Green Vault in Dresden.

David Webb Jewelry
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.

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. At 14 he finished high school and served in the army. New York was his first real visit to another world. The pace of the city and its broad offerings immediately enchanted him.

“Jewelry and objects of art four thousand years old are newer than anything we have today.” David Webb

David Webb Jewelry Store

In 1948, at the age of 23 he opened his first shop. David Webb quickly became successful. David Webb jewelry was featured on the cover of Vogue in 1950. David Webb 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. David Webb also he received a Coty Award for Jewelry Design in 1964. Only the second Coty given for jewelry. By the mid-60s the biggest names in New York, Palm Beach, Hollywood and pretty much all of Texas were dedicated David Webb clients. Elizabeth Taylor was feted with private showings at the Plaza Hotel when she came to town. Her many purchases included David Webb’s first-ever animal bracelet. The makara from1957 based on Achaemenid gold and turquoise bracelets (c. 550-330 BCE) and featured striking cabochon sapphire, coral and white enamel in a Maltese cross brooch.

From the 1950s forward, David Webb jewelry has been regularly featured in the fashion magazines. David Webb jewelry pops on the page and partners seamlessly with couture. No small wonder the New Yorker magazine anointed him “one of the most creative meteors around town.”

David Webb Jewelry

What continually set David Webb apart was how art fueled his designs. A Scythian pommel that he saw in an exhibition at the Met in 1959 became the gem-covered Coiled Dragon Brooch in 1972. Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome gave birth to the Geodesic Dome Ring in 1965. Its brilliant-cut diamonds set in a gold cage of sorts was a golden stand-in for the struts of the actual dome. Jewelry of the Art Deco era was deeply influential, and turned up in many David Webb works. David Webb often used rich black enamel and coral or scored rock crystal. The Groove Necklace of 1972 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, in 1963. The Zebra remains the company logo today.

David Webb died from pancreatic cancer in 1975 at age 50. The president of his company, Nina Silberstein continued working with and interpreting David Webb's designs. The business has been in continuous operation and in 2010 was purchased by estate jewelers Mark Emanuel, Sima Ghadamian and Robert Sadian.

Sotheby's David Webb Jewelry

From the art museum to the city street, David Webb jewelry has been from the arts and our collective past for 75 years. David Webb jewelry is uniquely fresh, bold and modern. David Webb jewelry can be purchased at auction and Buy Now marketplace. Sotheby's Specialists are always sourcing and consigning David Webb jewelry so make sure to check back for additional styles. You can also contact a Jewelry Specialist if you would like to sell David Webb jewelry in our next auction or buy now marketplace.

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