T he ultimate American designer-jeweller, David Webb (1925-1975) created jewels that embodied the American spirit of the 1960s, bold, eclectic, uninhibited in form, scale, volume, colour, material, enlivened with quirky wit, audacity and an idiosyncratic mix of multi-cultural references, from flowers and animals to jewels of antiquity and the exoticism of ancient, distant cultures, from Mayan to Chinese. He is best known for his massive, sculptural animal bangles, his use of rich, burnished, textured gold, carved rock crystal and coral, vibrantly deep enamels and arresting mixes of coloured gemstones. He moved to New York when he was 17, from Asheville, North Carolina, although, as an entirely self-made man, he made sure his humble origins were always clouded in mystery. He worked in the jewellery trade, and founded his own business in 1948, at 2 West 46th Street, moving in 1957 to 7 East 57th Street, where his boutique became a destination for socialites, movie stars, fashion editors, and American glitterati, including Jacqueline Kennedy, who, from 1962 commissioned Webb to make gifts of state incorporating native American materials.
The best known and most iconic of David Webb jewels, the huge, strong and strikingly eye-catching enamelled and gem-set zebra demonstrated the designer’s iconoclastic interpretation of the classical animal jewel. The first animal bangle appeared in 1957, designed as double-headed Makara, the ancient Indian talismanic mythological creature, inspired particularly by Jeanne Toussaint's creations for Cartier. The concept was perfected in 1963 unleashing a stream of lively animalier jewels, depicting mainly African animals, big cats, giraffes, elephants and brilliant green enamelled frogs; all inhabited Webb’s famous “enamel jungle.” They were all the rage in the ‘60s amongst Webb’s celebrity clients and fashion leaders. Diana Vreeland wore her favourite zebra bracelet (and zebra earrings) often and with great panache, reflecting her love of animal prints and skins.
MALTESE CROSS BROOCH
David Webb made a speciality of the Maltese cross brooch, all part of a vogue for rich, aristocratic heraldic jewels, medieval or baroque, as favoured by fashion luminaries from Coco Chanel to Diana Vreeland. In seemingly endless permutations, Webb’s Maltese cross brooches were inspired by European orders of the nobility and royalty, yet, in his usual style he broke the rules and shook up formality by ornamenting the crosses with the modernity of vibrant enamels, or with carved coral, turquoise or rock crystal, although many featured his signature textured gold, like golden rays of light, and others still were set entirely in diamonds.
The huge, heavy sautoir or long necklace with massive openwork links and an equally massive medallion-type pendant was one of the most distinctive and fashionable jewels of the 1960s and 70s. David Webb created his own varied interpretations of the jewel; in heavy, hammered, textured gold or in forms inspired by Art Deco, with black and white enamelled geometric motifs. Perhaps most characteristically his eye-catching sautoirs were designed around Asian, especially Chinese themes, incorporating motifs such as the ancient, talismanic Ru Yi scroll or floating cloud emblem, and using favourite Chinese materials, like carved jade, sometimes antique fragments, sometimes lavender jade beads, as well as coral carvings, perhaps depicting the dragon, to symbolise good fortune and longevity.
Vivienne Becker is a jewellery historian and a contributing editor of The Financial Times' How to Spend it.