From apprentice silversmith to star jeweller
David Webb was born in Asheville, North Carolina, in 1925, and discovered his love of design as an apprentice silversmith with his uncle.
Dreams of the city took him to New York, where he found a job in Greenwich Village and a patron in the form of the wealthy socialite Antoinette Quilleret. In 1945, they opened a store together.
Webb’s innovative modern designs quickly captured the attention of the social elite and, by 1948, he had bought out Quilleret and established his own company, David Webb Inc.
By the 1950s and 1960s, movie stars and fashion icons including Elizabeth Taylor, Jacqueline Kennedy and Diana Vreeland could be seen wearing his bracelets, brooches, rings and necklaces — jewels fashioned in hammered gold, black enamel and colourful gemstones, many in the shape of exotic animals.
Tragically, the jeweller died in 1975 from pancreatic cancer, but the company he founded lives on, creating jewellery based on his archive of more than 40,000 drawings and designs. It’s a legacy that embodies glamour and sophistication — plus a touch of over-the-top whimsy.
The art and architecture of ancient civilisations were a big influence on Webb. He was a regular visitor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and he studied different alloys to create a gold reminiscent of ancient jewellery.
A classic example of a textured gold Webb jewel is this hammered 18k gold necklace designed as a series of scrolls — a motif from ancient Greece also found in the Art Deco designs of jeweller René Boivin.
In the 18k yellow gold and platinum earrings below right, the diamond details adds a touch of sophistication.
A love of colour
Webb is well known for his love of yellow gold — and his bold use of colour in general. Part of the ‘Totem’ collection, which mixed and matched gemstones, textures and shapes to create entirely unique pendants, the late-1970s design below, from the collection of Betsy Bloomingdale, sold for $21,250 at Christie’s New York.
Webb’s colour combinations often showcase specific gemstones, as in the set below left, which focuses on the blue-grey star sapphires and sold for $250,000 in 2018 at at Christie’s in New York.
The pendant earrings, below right, offset emeralds and sapphires — with characteristic elegance and playfulness.
Webb’s love of colour endeared him to celebrity stylists, and his jewels have made frequent appearances on the red carpet, worn by Helen Mirren, Rihanna, Catherine O’Hara, Cynthia Erivo and Renée Zellweger, among others.
Zebras, frogs and other fabulous beasts
Since the early 1960s, when Diana Vreeland was spotted with a zebra on her wrist and the Duke of Windsor surprised his wife with a twin frog bangle, the name of David Webb has been synonymous with animal designs. Today, the zebra is the company mascot.
The first animal bracelet was made in 1957, and a procession of brightly coloured monkeys, elephants, snakes and big cats followed. Jeanne Toussaint had popularised big cat jewellery at Cartier in the 1940s, but Webb had his own playful take on the feline form, incorporating it into necklaces, earrings, brooches and bangles. His lionesses were a particular hit with Elizabeth Taylor.
Webb is also synonymous with geometric enamel, specifically black designs, such as this baroque pearl, diamond and black enamel necklace and matching earrings from the estate of Carroll Petrie, offered for sale at Christie’s in December 2015 and April 2016.
The black enamel necklace pictured below left sold at Christie’s New York in 2011 for $52,500.
Other enamel pieces incorporate colourful hardstones in juxtaposition with an otherwise polished finish, such as the geometric coral bangle, below right, which sold for CHF 47,500 at Christie’s Geneva in 2012.
David Webb’s rock crystal designs are an elegant alternative to his bolder designs, particularly when paired with diamonds or set with gemstones. In 2017, this sautoir sold at Christie’s New York for $106,250 — more than five times the low estimate.
In other examples, carved, faceted sapphires add texture and geometry to the otherwise smooth polish of the rock crystal.
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By the mid-1970s, David Webb’s jewels were a regular feature on the covers of Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Town & Country, where they were worn both singly and in stacks.
Some 75 years after the young jeweller opened his first store in Manhattan, his creations continue to be coveted by collectors, designers and stylists all over the world.