zebra-bracelet-sketch
Jewelry

Icons of Design: 3 Quintessential Jewels By David Webb

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.

ZEBRA BRACELET

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.

zebra-bracelet-sketch
Original Archive Sketch for the Zebra Bracelet. David Webb Archives.

MALTESE CROSS BROOCH

L18058_9RPXW_01.jpg
Diamond and rock crystal pendant/brooch , David Webb. Sold for $13,750.

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 SAUTOIR

N09951-152_WEB.jpg
Gold, Yellow Sapphire, Emerald and Diamond Sautoir , David Webb. Estimate $40,000–60,000.

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.

GE1805-158_web.jpg
Rock crystal, diamond and gold sautoir , David Webb. Sold for 41,250 CHF.

Vivienne Becker is a jewellery historian and a contributing editor of The Financial Times' How to Spend it.

Icons of Jewelry Design

More from Sotheby's

We use our own and third party cookies to enable you to navigate around our Site, use its features and engage on social media, and to allow us to perform analytics, remember your preferences, provide services that you have requested and produce content and advertisements tailored to your interests, both on our Site as well as others. For more information, or to learn how to change your cookie or marketing preferences, please see our updated Privacy Policy & Cookie Policy.

By continuing to use our Site, you consent to our use of cookies and to the practices described in our updated Privacy Policy.

Close