David Webb (1925 – 1975) Born and raised in Asheville, North Carolina, David Webb was only nine years old when he began to apprentice in his uncle’s silversmith shop. It was there he learned metal smithing techniques and also began designing jewelry.
When he was seventeen, Webb moved to New York and got a job repairing jewelry in Greenwich Village. Blond, handsome, and dripping Southern charm, Webb ingratiated himself into New York society where he met Antoinette Quilleret, a wealthy socialite who recognized his talents. They opened a shop in 1945.
Quilleret brought in Nina Silberstein, a business expert, to handle bookkeeping. Eventually, Silberstein and Webb bought out Quilleret and at just twenty-three, Webb with Silberstein founded David Webb Inc. Webb’s designs soon caught the attention of major department stores including Bergdorf Goodman.
In addition to his design skills, Webb was the consummate jeweler. He would often sit with his bench artisans and show them precisely how he wanted them to craft his creations. No detail was overlooked. Before long, David Webb jewelry was sought after by the most stylish and demanding design connoisseurs.
Ruth Peltason, author of the book, “David Webb: The Quintessential American Jeweler,” has said that it did not take long before Webb became what she calls a well-known secret. “The ladies who lunch started to hear about David Webb, and so, they’d come downtown in their chauffeured limousines.
“He really was the right man at the right place at the right time,” Peltason says of Webb. “It was breakthrough jewelry. It was large. It spoke volumes. The rings are big. The jewelry has presence. This is jewelry for women who are independent-minded, who know their own style.”
Soon David Webb jewelry was sought after by the chic and wealthy and began to appear on magazine covers like Vogue and other fashion style setters. Webb’s jewelry was closely associated with socialites and movie stars virtually from the beginning. His clients included Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Lee Radziwell, Elizabeth Taylor, Ava Gardner, Lana Turner, Princess Grace, the Duchess of Windsor, Doris Duke, and Gloria Vanderbilt.
Elizabeth Taylor featured four pages of Webb’s jewelry in, “My Love Affair with Jewelry,” the photo book of her legendary collection. Diana Vreeland, editor of Harper’s Bazaar, was rarely seen without her beloved David Webb black and white enamel zebra bangle with tiny diamonds on its mane and its cabochon ruby eyes.
Webb’s audacious, extravagant, playful designs often took their inspiration from nature. Every piece was made by hand and the designs boldly used color, and dimension that show meticulous attention to detail. Webb is probably best known for enamel jewelry with animal themes where frogs seem ready to jump off a wearer’s cuffs or lapels. Some bangles also feature crocodiles or intertwining dragons. His hallmark pieces are animal motifs and luxurious necklaces. The “Strolling Tiger Clip”, “Circus Horse Clip”, and “Mythical Unicorn Clip” are among some of his most innovative animal pieces.
Webb’s creations also include carved crystal, abstract enamel designs mixed with eye catching combinations of diamonds and semi-precious stones. Important influences also came to Webb from Faberge, Cellini, and other master jewelers from the 1800’s and early 1900’s whose creations were more art than commodity.
Webb was further inspired by the aesthetics of the ancient Greeks, Chinese, and Egyptians. He reinterpreted these designs for the modern era using modern materials. The result was a look that established David Webb as a groundbreaking jewelry house and a destination for statement jewelry.
While best remembered for animal and nature inspired designs, Webb’s legacy is overwhelming. His repertoire of influences span everything from Etruscan culture to 18th century jewels from Jaipur. In particular, his Art Deco pieces that combine diamonds, enamel and south sea pearls remain completely modern. The collection of his carved crystal pieces with small, discreet diamonds interspersed have been described as, “refreshingly subtle yet no less show stopping.’
When Webb died at the age of fifty from an aggressive form of pancreatic cancer in 1975, he left a rich and diverse output of bold, beautiful and intricate jewelry that was treasured and carefully preserved for future generations.
Nina Silberstein, Webb’s original partner, continued Webb’s vision and style. She and her family operated David Webb, Inc., at the same Manhattan location that bore his name. Each piece continued to be carefully crafted from start to finish by skilled artisans in a workshop located above the flagship Madison Avenue store, the last of its kind in New York City. In 2008, David Webb celebrated its 60th anniversary.
In 2010, estate jewelers Mark Emanuel, Sima Ghadamian and Robert Saidian bought the company. Since then, they have revitalized the David Webb brand, hiring Terry Richardson and Carine Roitfeld for a provocative ad campaign, delving into Webb’s vast archives to create never-before- seen pieces (just 10,000 of his 40,000 sketches were ever produced) and opening a new flagship store on Madison Avenue, near the spot where Webb launched his famous 57th Street location in 1963.
Architect Peter Pennoyer outfitted the new 8,000-square-foot space with a ground-floor boutique, an elegant upper-level lounge, an archive room that includes the sketches for the first David Webb book, and a rare in-house workshop, where every piece continues to be made by hand.
When asked by Departures.com in March 2012, “How can you tell the old David Webb from the new?” co-owner, Mark Emanuel, said, “Webb chose gems that inspired him, but not all were necessarily of the highest quality.
“Sima, Robert and I have access to some of the finest stones in the world, and we’ve been amassing all sorts, including some of David’s favorites, like antique Chinese jade, carved coral and Persian “Sleeping Beauty” turquoise. We’re also trying more unconventional stones, like antique amber beads, which David was also known to work with, and interpreting them the way he would have … we are using only the original wax molds, so each new piece remains true to his designs. The differences are functional details, such as updated earring backs for wearability.
“…while David did keep some records (his archives include more than 30,000 sketches and orders), aside from the (much-copied) stamps on the pieces, he provided no real authenticity to his clients. When we opened [in 2011], we decided to include certificates with all new pieces in addition to authenticating any estate pieces that clients bring to us.”
David Webb can be said to have turned costume jewelry on its head. With style and wit, his creations took a step back from making costume jewelry to look like magnificent historical pieces to designing beautifully crafted pieces with genuine stones that look costume but are, in fact, true works of art that demand higher prices and have significantly more value.
A craftsman with the firm for decades, Benjamin Ray, has said, “No one makes jewelry like David Webb.” And he is right!