For any woman who considers herself a collector or connoisseur of antique jewelry, the designs of David Webb are an essential part of her treasure trove. Like candy, the bold colors, cabochon gems and saturated enamels of Webb’s designs bring excitement and pleasure to those who covet them. His passion for unique materials coupled with his interest in the designs of other cultures led him to create some of the most memorable pieces — designs that could have been fatally deemed “trendy,” but that have instead become iconic. With a career spanning just over 25 years, cut short by his untimely death, the mark that his jewelry left on the decades of fashionistas is unlike that of any other designer.
David Webb’s career in jewelry began in his early 20s when he left his home in North Carolina and headed for new opportunities in New York City. Inspired by the sculpture, textiles and ceramics that he routinely saw at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he began to create truly wearable pieces of art for his clients. Having received some training from an uncle who worked in jewelry manufacturing, Webb honed in on his design skills as a young man working in New York’s famed diamond district.
With a mind for innovative designs and unusual materials, Webb quickly found success among New York’s wealthiest women. He opened his Manhattan shop in 1948 and acquired a rolodex of clientele that included tastemakers, socialites and celebrities such as Jackie Kennedy, Elizabeth Taylor, Diana Vreeland and the Duchess of Windsor.
Webb was fascinated by the designs of antiquity, studying the art of ancient Egypt, Greece, Africa and China. He loved the use of non-precious materials such as carved wood, rock crystal, coral and jade — all of which held so many possibilities to be sculpted into his desired aesthetic.
He looked to how different goldsmithing techniques could be applied to enhance the appearance and texture of the heavy yellow gold, which was fashionable among women in the mid-20th century, allowing him to create the bold designs he desired. He aspired to have his creations be worn like miniature sculptures, keeping in mind the ability for his clients to wear these on both casual and formal occasions.
In 1957 he introduced the first piece in his Animal Kingdom collection, which became an instant success among his followers. Soon, Webb had an entire menagerie of wildlife integrated into his designs including lions, tigers, fish, dragons and zebras. There were no shortage of animals to inspire his jewelry creations, and he would choose his materials with the body of his muse in mind.
Enamel was the perfect medium for the scales on fish and stripes on safari animals, and his use of gold allowed the piece to flow and bend bringing the animals to life. His skillful enamel work made these pieces extremely wearable and were often sprinkled with pavé diamonds and cabochon gems carefully chosen to enhance the vibrancy of the piece. These statement enamel jewelry items were unlike any else being offered at the time, and the bold look was especially appealing during the 60s and 70s.
Some of Webb’s most memorable designs took after the jewelry and objet d’art of the Mughal Empire. After having been exposed to these Indian jewels, Webb had a vision of incorporating the designs into his own pieces. Webb particularly admired the carved gems that were often the centerpiece of these jewelry pieces, as well as the cabochon cuts of the brightly colored gemstones they favored. He would often purchase these items from antique dealers and repurpose the carved gemstones into his own designs, adding enamel and pavé diamonds to give them his own personal flair. This adds provenance and historical significance to his pieces, fusing eastern and western design with immense success.
David Webb passed away from cancer in 1975 at the age of 50. He was at the apex of his career, continuously designing new pieces and expanding his clientele of fabulous women. His non-stop work ethic and creativity fueled the success of David Webb even after his passing. He left behind an archive of thousands of unrealized designs, many which still have yet to come to fruition. Unlike the jewelry trends that come and go, Webb’s designs left a mark on the industry unlike that of any other jeweler. The bold choices of materials coupled with his love for exoticism are hallmarks of his designs and remain popular among those who treasure his unique aesthetic.