NEW YORK – In the glittering world of designer jewelry, David Webb has been a dominant name for decades – seven, to be exact. The company celebrated its 70th anniversary in 2018. While Webb may have been best known for the enameled animal bangles he introduced in the 1960s, the animal kingdom’s influence on the designer can be traced to a much earlier period of his career.
Born in 1923 Asheville, N.C., Webb opened his first shop in New York City in 1948 at age 23. He previously spent a few years as an apprentice to his uncle, learning silversmithing and metalworking. The first item he ever designed was a copper ashtray signed with a spider in its web. From then on, animal motifs became a major part in his business. In fact, his company logo incorporates a golden W with a zebra.
While Webb made jewelry of all kinds, from traditional gold and diamond rings to other forms that blended diamonds with semi-precious stones, his animal pieces brought him the biggest acclaim. He himself quipped, “Women are tired of jewelry-looking jewelry, and they want one-of-a-kind pieces … Animals are here to stay,” according to www.DavidWebb.com.
Webb worked animal figures into pins, necklaces and rings, but it is his bangle bracelets, usually enameled in bright colors, are iconic and highly collectible.
In 1957, he designed his first animal bangle with a dragon that contained cabochon emeralds, diamonds, platinum and gold. Screen legend Elizabeth Taylor bought the piece, which would later become known as the Elizabeth Taylor Makara Bracelet. This design opened up a world of possibilities, and a veritable zoo of animals followed – creatures both real and mythical that could fly, swim, slither or run, including frogs, panthers, zebras, horses, monkeys, snakes, leopards, alligators, seahorses and elephants. Taylor continued to be a fan and even wore her diamond-encrusted lion-and-pearl Webb designs when filming several movies.
Vogue editor and columnist Diana Vreeland was an early champion of his work, and Vogue was among the first magazines to feature his creations. Two years after opening his own business, the magazine used a pair of Webb’s earrings on a model on the cover of a fall issue. Vreeland, herself a fashion icon, was rarely seen without her David Webb enameled zebra bangle bracelet or earrings.
Besides Taylor and Vreeland, other celebrities and public figures have been Webb devotees. In 1962, first lady Jacqueline Kennedy selected Webb to make the official Gifts of State for the White House. Webb responded with a series of paperweights, some including animal themes, for visiting dignitaries.
One of Mrs. Kennedy’s favorite Webb pieces was said to be a coral paperweight given to her husband, President Kennedy, as a gift. “Webb was entrusted by Jacqueline Kennedy to rework her late husband’s coral in 1966, using it to form the fish tail of typically imaginative mythical sea lion, cast in gold, which he rested upon a larger piece of coral amongst a bed of golden crystals to form the paperweight,” says a narrative on Sotheby’s website, which auctioned the item in 1996.
Among Hollywood’s elite, two of the stars who favored David Webb jewelry were Barbra Streisand and Princess Grace of Monaco. Even after Webb’s death [from pancreatic cancer] in 1975, the company continued to produce striking designs that were in keeping with the founder’s artistic vision. David Webb jewelry has been embraced by contemporary stars including Jennifer Lawrence, Beyonce, Amy Adams and Debra Messing, who don them to high-profile events such as the Met Gala, the Grammys and the Golden Globes.
David Webb pieces are so beloved that their owners don’t often part with them, so they only appear at auction from time to time. In April 2018, it was noteworthy when not one but two single-owner collections of David Webb jewelry crossed the block in New York. A sale at Bonhams New York was led by an amethyst, coral, emerald, rock crystal quartz, diamond and enamel pendant necklace featuring a pair of mythical creatures that realized $62,500; while Doyle New York’s sale of the Noel and Harriette Levine (who are major museum donors) collection starred a gold, platinum, enamel, diamond and cabochon ruby zebra bangle bracelet that sold for $40,625.
On LiveAuctioneers, Webb’s animal bangle bracelets consistently bring top dollar, from a Capricorn ram gemstone and gold bangle that brought $34,000 at Elite Decorative Arts in February 2015 to an enameled gold, diamond and ruby frog bracelet that was purchased for $30,000 at Rago Arts in June 2017.
Long before “statement” jewelry was a thing, David Webb was making big, bold jewelry pieces that were distinctive and fun to wear. Fans today continue to appreciate his designs for their imaginative artistry, high-quality craftsmanship and enduring value as collectibles.