David Webb: An American Jeweler
Written by Elyse Shapiro
Famed jewelry designer David Webb embodied quintessential American fashion. His designs are reflections of an eclectic melting pot. From his love of New York society and architecture, to his fascination with ancient cultures, to his homages to zoological jewelry designers before him, David Webb spun his own creativity into his myriad influences. Webb’s pieces are bold statements that say, “I am here.” His most notable collections include enameled animal cuffs, Maltese crosses, dazzling rock crystal, bright colorful gemstones, heavy textured gold, and sleek Art Deco design. A variety of David Webb designs will be available on July 31, 2021 at the auction of property from the estate of Mrs. Charles R. Wood.
David Webb originally hailed from Ashville, NC. He was born there in 1925. As a youth, he apprenticed as a silversmith with his uncle. However, his methodology was mainly self-taught. “I had a tremendous feeling of art in me. I wanted to be an archaeologist, a ceramicist, or a jeweler. Jewelry won out,” said Webb.
The New York City lifestyle quickly drew Webb in. He decided to move to Greenwich Village where he met wealthy patron and socialite, Antoinette Quilleret. Webb and Quilleret opened a jewelry salon together in 1945. On July 28, 1948 he bought Quilleret out to establish David Webb Inc. in Manhattan. All David Webb jewelry has been manufactured in house since the company’s inception.
During his time in New York, Webb frequented the Metropolitan Museum of Art during the day and enjoyed dinner parties with clients in the evening. He filled his weekly trips to the Metropolitan Museum of Art with studies of Incan, Turkish, Syrian, and Egyptian goldsmiths. Webb analyzed varying gold alloys and techniques to make his new works appear to have an ancient patina. He cultivated designs from the glyphs, symbols, and architecture of early Greek, Mayan, Chinese, and African cultures. From these inspirations, the David Webb “Ancient World” collection was born. Christie’s auction house listed a David Webb gold necklace from the “Ancient World” collection in 2017, which sold for $27,500. This gold necklace featured heavy hammered scroll links in the shape of Greek keys.
“57th Street” and “Manhattan Minimalist”
Aside from the historical influences Webb acquired from New York museums, he also drew inspiration from the City’s streets, architecture, and social scenes. He wanted to create pieces that could be worn by smart, fashionable, urban women who work hard and play hard.
“The thing women want most today is a smashing piece of jewelry they can wear in the daytime and on into the evening,” said Webb. His “Manhattan Minimalist” and “57th Street” collections feature bold, versatile jewelry that can be worn day or night. Designs from these collections feature heavy, geometric gold and diamond designs highlighted with colorful gems or Art Deco inspired black and white enamel. One baroque pearl, diamond, and black enamel link necklace by David Webb sold at Christie’s in 2015 from the estate of New York socialite, Carroll Petrie, for $56,250.
Rock Crystal Jewelry
Amongst other notable David Webb designs sold at Christie’s was a rock crystal, diamond, and gold sautoir from his “Twilight” collection. This necklace came from a private collector and sold for $106,250. David Webb’s “Twilight” collection displays the designer’s fascination with rock crystal. Webb once said, “Crystal is the only white alternative for diamonds.”
The Famed “Kingdom”
David Webb’s most iconic designs stem from “Kingdom,” a collection featuring his renowned animal jewelry, specifically his enameled bracelets. In 1957, he made his first animal bracelet. It featured the Makara, a mythical Hindu sea-creature. By 1963, he had created an entire bestiary including frogs, monkeys, snakes, horses, big cats, and zebras. The zebra eventually became the David Webb company mascot with the help of esteemed columnist Diana Vreeland. In 1968, Vreeland was photographed at a New York premiere with Truman Capote and C.Z. Guest wearing Webb’s black and white enamel “Zebra” bracelet. This image resonated with the world of jewelry collectors. “Women are tired of jewelry-looking jewelry, and they want one-of-a-kind pieces… Animals are here to stay,” said Webb.
Another of Webb’s creatures that caught the attention of Hollywood were his big cats. These glittering ferocious felines were a type of homage to Cartier’s Jeanne Toussaint. “Everything was born from the influence of Toussaint, naturally she inspired all of us,” said Webb.
One of his biggest fans of Webb’s “Lion” designs was American actress and jewelry lover, Elizabeth Taylor. She was a devoted client and even wore her David Webb “Lion” jewelry in films, including the 1973 picture Ash Wednesday. Taylor acquired a whole host of David Webb pieces for her collection. These included a white enamel “Horse” bracelet, a coral “Lion” bracelet, an emerald-set mythical “Makara” bracelet, a double strand of pearls with a double lion’s head clasp in diamond and emerald, and a Maltese cross brooch in coral, sapphire, white enamel, and gold. At a 1967 press conference, Taylor was asked about her Maltese cross brooch and she responded, “It’s by David Webb. Maybe if I mention him, he’ll give me a gift.”
Webb was known to occasionally gift his jewelry to illustrious clients, including the Dutchess of Windsor. In 1964, the Duke of Windsor had gifted his wife with Webb’s “Twin Frog” enamel cuff. Shortly after, Webb gave the Dutchess a pair of matching clip earrings in appreciation of the purchase. That same year, David Webb also won the prestigious Coty Award.
Commissioned by the Kennedys
An equally esteemed accomplishment for Webb came two years earlier, in 1962, when First Lady Jaqueline Kennedy named David Webb her choice for making Official Gifts of State. She commissioned the American jewelry designer to create a series of paperweights using American minerals for visiting heads of state. In 1963, King Hassan of Morocco was presented with one of these gifts in the form of an American eagle set in gold with American topaz.
Jackie Kennedy later requested another version of these paperweights. It was a task set with greater sentimentality that showed her trust in David Webb as an artist. In 1966, she commissioned Webb to rework a piece of coral originating from Kasolo Island where her late husband, President John F. Kennedy, had been shipwrecked in 1943. President Kennedy was originally presented with this coral as a gift. Webb remastered the coral into the fish tail of a mythical sea lion cast in gold and adorned with golden crystals. Sotheby’s sold this piece at auction in 1996 after the First Lady’s passing.
Illustrious Fans and Clientele
Other notable clients of David Webb Inc. include Ava Gardner, Lana Turner and Merle Oberon, Gloria Vanderbilt, Barbara Streisand, Helen Mirren, Jennifer Garner, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Catherine O’Hara, Cynthia Erivo and Renée Zellweger. Zellweger has worn a David Webb statement ring to almost every red carpet event. Some of her Webb accessories include the “Mega Cubist” ring, the “Link” ring, the “City Lights” ring, the “Crossover” ring and bangle, the “Grand Central” ring, the “Sugar Cube” bangle, and the “Dinner” ring.
In 1975, David Webb faced an untimely death from pancreatic cancer at age 50. The president of the company at that time, Nina Silberstein, took up ownership and the task carrying on his legacy. In 2009, Mark Emanuel and Robert Sadian purchased David Webb Inc. By restoring an archive of over 40,000 original designs from David Webb, the company’s current owners have worked tirelessly to bring Webb’s vision to today clients.
In 2013, author Ruth Peltason published her book David Webb: The Quintessential American Jeweler. A year later, Norton Museum of Art in Palm Beach, FL displayed a retrospective exhibition of Webb’s work. Photographer Noah Kalina also remade a 1964 film by Milton Greene and Joe Eula titled, A Walk in the Woods, that featured Webb’s beloved “Kingdom” collection. In April 2021, the new film was exhibited at the David Webb Madison Avenue workshop. An archive of his creations were displayed with the film. The exhibition included sketches, Diana Vreeland’s famed “Zebra” cuff, and a “Monkey” brooch in carved coral, emerald, sapphire, and diamond that was the last piece Webb crafted before his death.
The continued fascination with David Webb’s designs and the vigorous efforts to preserve his legacy are true testaments to his contributions. David Webb was and continues to be an iconic American jeweler.
The following suite will be available for sale at a live auction of Property from the Estate of Mrs. Charles R. Wood on July 31st, 2021