NEW YORK – Anyone who knows anything about fine jewelry is familiar with the name David Webb (1925-1975), the American jeweler and self-taught designer who rose from an unassuming beginning in Asheville, North Carolina, to become one the industry’s most famous names.
Webb opened his eponymous retail store on West 46th Street in Manhattan at the ripe age of 23 and enjoyed almost instant success. His work included dragon bracelets, Maltese cross brooches and animal motifs.
Webb’s client list was like a who’s who of the rich and famous: Elizabeth Taylor, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Barbra Streisand, Helen Mirren, Jennifer Garner and Beyoncé, to name a few. In 1964, the Duke of Windsor purchased a David Webb bracelet for his wife. Diana Vreeland, the noted columnist and editor of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, was often seen with a David Webb black-and-white enamel zebra bangle. The David Webb company logo, in fact, is a zebra.
“David Webb jewelry designs are attractive because they stand apart from the ordinary and engage their audience emotionally,” said George Callan, senior jewelry specialist at Fortuna, the fine jewelry auction house in New York City. “Wearers feel great wearing David Webb jewelry. The designs are bold and colorful, using nature, geometry and historical perspectives to express his very unique style.”
The use of animals has been a David Webb signature, Callan said, admired by collectors who recognize his creative genius. “David Webb statement pieces bring animals like the zebra, chimera, leopard, tiger and other fantastic creatures to life as bold icons that are worn by women who are known as worldwide leaders,” he said.
David Webb jewelry became a “secret” style for the world’s rich and famous during the 1960s and 1970s, Callan observed. “His creative genius remains an American treasure for women who are expecting the best. The bold, large-sized colorful pieces remain attractive because they have always been designed by David Webb. His design archives contain close to 50,000 authentic, original designs that he himself created during his lifetime. The current owners of the brand recognize his genius and have produced only jewelry that was conceptually designed by David Webb. There is brand integrity that remains attractive and valuable to modern collectors.”
Aileen Ward, vice president and senior specialist at Andrew Jones Auctions in Los Angeles, said David Webb was an innovator who took much of his inspiration from the natural world and design movements that preceded him and sought to create wearable pieces of art. “The whimsy of his animal, floral and seashell works have everlasting appeal,” she said. “His enameled and geometric works are bold statement pieces. Webb had an eye for complementing color and texture like a fine artist. His attention to detail is beyond compare.”
Jack DeStories of Fairfield Auction in Monroe, Connecticut, thinks the appeal of David Webb jewelry is in his reinterpretation of traditional design – “making modern of what was old fashioned.” He added, “As long as I’ve been in the business these pieces are hot. I think the demand for all luxury goods is strong and I don’t see David Webb jewelry prices subsiding anytime soon. It’s probably better than putting money in the stock market.”
Callan agreed that the current market for David Webb jewelry remains strong. “It’s been growing stronger with modern celebrities wearing David Webb pieces and the current owners maintaining their pledge to only produce David Webb designs,” he said, “some that have never been made before. As we look ahead to the future, David Webb jewelry remains positioned to grow more popular because of the unique style, dedicated craftsmanship, celebrity patronage, and emotionally engaging aesthetic. Women love to wear David Webb jewelry. That certainly bodes well for the future expressions of an American master jeweler.”
Ward said that since Webb’s death nearly 45 years ago, collectors have been clamoring, especially for pieces created during his mid-20th century heyday. “Webb was involved in every step of the creative process,” she said, “from initial drawings to finishing touches. The market for those period works is likely to strengthen as time passes. As always, the exquisite, the unique pieces centered around important stones will always achieve top tier prices.”
Sadly, David Webb died way too young for such an iconic and brilliant designer. He was just 50 when pancreatic cancer claimed him. Since then, his business has been in continuous operation, and in 2010 the name and company were purchased by estate jewelers Mark Emmanuel, Sima Ghadamian and Robert Sadian. There are two flagship David Webb retail locations – one on Madison Avenue in New York City and one on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills at The Beverly Wilshire Hotel.
There’s an excellent book on the life and work of David Webb titled David Webb: The Quintessential American Jeweler, by Ruth Petalson. It was published in 2013.