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"I had a tremendous feeling for art in me. I wanted to be an archaeologist, a ceramicist, or a jeweler. Jewelry won out."
David Webb was born in Asheville, North Carolina in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains in 1925. An instinctively creative child he always knew he wanted to work in a design orientated industry and after an apprenticeship at his uncle’s jewellery manufacturing business he decided to pursue a career in jewellery. He moved to New York aged just 17 in order to immerse himself fully in the trade and found work on 47th Street – the famed Diamond District – where he spent the next few years learning as much as possible about jewellery design and production. In 1948 he started his eponymous business with the financial backing of French socialite and jewellery lover Antoinette Quilleret. From the very beginning he followed the ethos that would sustain him through the following years: to make what you love, design what you know, stay true to who you are and always consider your client.
His jewellery was big, bold, modern and unapologetically American. It reflected the world he lived in and as he once commented, “There is nothing delicate about life today, it is elegant and harsh at the same time.” He found inspiration in the city’s museums, in particular The Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as books on art history, nature and of course the architecture and vibrancy of the city he now called home. His Ancient World Collection clearly illustrates his fascination with ancient civilisations in its use of motifs borrowed from the Incas, Moghuls, Navajo Indians, early Greeks, Chinese and primitive African cultures. He said of these pieces “I believe the things I make have museum quality and, hopefully, will last as long as the originals that inspired them.”
His success and reputation grew rapidly and when Vogue magazine first featured his jewellery on their cover in October 1950, they were soon followed by others such as Harper’s Bazaar and Town & Country, all keen to dress their models in his bright and glamourous jewels. At this point he was still selling his work wholesale to stores such as Bergdorf Goodman but by 1955 he had made the leap to exclusively retailing his work himself. In 1957 the first of his famous animal jewels was created and within a few years there was an entire David Webb menagerie for clients to choose from and collect. Frogs, horses, monkeys, snakes and elephants formed bangles, rings and brooches as well as the zebra (which became the company mascot) and the big cats. Webb credited Cartier’s Jeanne Toussaint with the inspiration for his jewelled jungle which continued to grow in number and variation over the years as they proved enduringly popular and could be found gracing the wrists and lapels of clients such as Diana Vreeland, the Duchess of Windsor and Elizabeth Taylor. In 1962 Jackie Kennedy, who was already a client, began commissioning Webb to make the White House’s official Gifts of State which were often patriotically set with American mined gemstones. Everything the firm created was handmade in house with each part of the creative process, from stone cutting to enamelling, closely monitored by Webb who would sometimes sit for hours with a craftsman making sure his ideas were perfectly translated into gold and gemstones. In 1964 Webb was presented with a Special Award for Jewelry by the Coty American Fashion Critics’ Awards, with judges describing him as “the man of the hour”.
Shape and volume informed every piece he designed and his enduring interest in architecture can be seen in collections such as Manhattan Minimalism and 57th Street. He favoured yellow gold and enjoyed experimenting with the different textures and finishes that could be achieved with it whether in combination with vibrant gemstones, brightly coloured enamels or icy colourless rock crystal and diamonds. Believing that women wanted jewellery that would not only express their personalities but that would carry them from lunches to post dinner drinks and dancing, he sought to design pieces that they could wear as comfortably and confidently during the day as at night.
Webb was renowned for his charisma; he was tall and well dressed with an air of Southern gentility and he drew people to him with ease. However he granted few interviews, was rarely photographed and disliked talking about himself or his childhood. He is said to have loved painting and been a wonderful cook, entertaining friends at both his town house on the Upper East Side as well as his home in the country where he was able to indulge his love of gardening.
Tragically Webb passed away in 1975 aged just 50 . The firm was continued by his long-term business partner Nina Silberstein until it was sold in 2009.