“David Webb is unquestionably one of the leading 20th-century American jewelry designers,” Medill Higgins Harvey, associate curator of American decorative arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, said, “distinguished by his originality, the bold sculptural quality of his work, and the distinctive way in which it reveals a keen and nuanced sense of history and art history, as well as current trends and tastes.”
Ms. Harvey’s assessment echoes a lot of voices in the jewelry world as the American jeweler’s company marks its 75th year.
Since Mr. Webb’s death in 1975, his original designs have remained in production — and in demand — through the Silberstein family’s ownership and now that of Mark Emanuel and Robert Sadian, who acquired the business in 2010.
“We understood that we were buying a great American brand that had all kinds of legs and silos to it, and also a great deal of blue sky and potential,” Mr. Emanuel said.
Born in Asheville, N.C., Mr. Webb was just 23 years old in 1948 when he opened his shop on West 46th Street in New York. In Mr. Webb’s heyday from the late ’50s through the ’70s, his jewels were worn by Elizabeth Taylor, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and the most stylish members of the city’s social register.
Mr. Emanuel said he trusted intuitively that contemporary audiences also would respond to the brand’s design signatures: the animal bracelets, totem necklaces and carved gems like lapis lazuli, rock crystal, coral and jade.
That appears to have happened. Greta Gerwig, the “Barbie” director, wore the Chromatic black enamel cuff with diamonds and turquoise cabochons and the emerald, turquoise and diamond Khonsu earrings on the summer 2023 digital cover of British Elle. Baz Luhrmann wore a jade, diamond and black enamel pendant at the 2023 Oscars. And Natasha Lyonne wore several jewels, including snake and tiger rings, at the 2023 Golden Globes.
The David Webb jewels of today are largely unchanged from when Mr. Webb first conceived of them. Consulting an archive with thousands of drawings and sketches, Mr. Emanuel and his team tend to recreate the designs or reimagine them with slight variations.
Some of the pieces are well known, such as the ruby-eye Zebra bracelet that the Met acquired for its permanent collection in 2018. The jewel, which debuted in 1963, had “the technical virtuosity, the creativity and the expressive power that define all of the works of art that the Met collects,” Ms. Harvey said. Diana Vreeland, editor in chief of American Vogue from 1962 to 1971, famously owned one and published an Irving Penn photograph showcasing the jewel in 1964. The diamond-studded version of the bracelet now sells for $78,500.
“Animal jewelry, and references to animals in art and the decorative arts, have been around for centuries,” Mr. Emanuel said. “I think the Zebra bracelet itself represents an aspiration that leans towards the natural world that I think is quite beautiful and relevant, even today.”
Earlier this month, the company released a 50-piece anniversary collection ($8,800 to $195,000) that pays homage to Mr. Webb’s signature silhouettes and design codes. For example, the Zebra bracelet’s black-and-white stripes appear in several rings and two cuff bracelets, all accented with diamonds and colorful enamel.
The impetus for the Zebra bracelet, as well as other David Webb creations, is explored in “The Art of David Webb: Jewelry & Culture,” ($85) published in September by Rizzoli.
Written by Ruth Peltason, the jewelry historian who was also the author of the 2013 book “David Webb, The Quintessential American Jeweler,” the new volume connects the jewelry of David Webb to the broader worlds of sculpture, painting, fashion, photography and architecture. Ms. Peltason said she conducted “pleasurably forensic research” to present a portrait of Mr. Webb as an artist that was “alive to the world around him.”
“The book stakes a claim that all art forms are interrelated and have something to say about the zeitgeist,” Mr. Emanuel said. “A lot of David Webb’s jewelry was tied into cultural moments — the shifting of fashions, the birth of feminism — all of these played on his antennas as an artist.”
As Ms. Peltason said: “The David Webb design voice is always modern because the best jewelry connects to its life and times. That’s how the best jewelry stays current.”