Thanks in part to a variety of high-profile sales and notable exhibitions, the popularity of designer fine jewelry has been on the rise in recent years. In this article, we turn our attention to American jewelry icon, David Webb, looking at his signature designs, how to care for them, and how to spot a counterfeit. His designs not only stand the test of time, but are unique concepts in their own right, and have reinvented fine jewelry as bold statement pieces. Next year marks the brand’s 70th anniversary, making his pieces a particularly wise (and timely) investment.
Wonder, Whimsy, and Webb
Born in North Carolina, David Webb’s career started as a young apprentice in his uncle’s silversmith workshop, before arriving in New York at the age of 17. During this time, he was introduced to his future business partner, Nina Silberstein. Together, they established David Webb Inc. in 1948, opening a store on 57th Street in New York.
In addition to possessing a creative eye and having a meticulous attention to detail, Webb was a highly skilled craftsman. Starting with more conservative designs from the 1950s onward, Webb established a reputation for a bold use of color, volume and structure using a “broad spectrum of cutting, ranging from straightforward faceting to cabochons to carving,” explains Alexander Eblen, director of the Fine Jewelry and Timepieces department at Leslie Hindman Auctioneers.
Webb drew inspiration primarily from nature, which is evident in his signature animal motifs such as zebras (featured in the company’s logo), among other creatures.
Webb’s inspiration also came from fellow designers Fabergé and Cellini in their approach to creating wearable art pieces, as well as designs from ancient civilizations and the Art Deco movement.
Often using enamel and precious stones, Webb favored coral and turquoise, followed by rubies, amethysts, diamonds, and emeralds, before turning his attention to crystal, pearls, jade and ivory in the 1970s. Eblen explains that “the important jewels centered on fine gemstones have historically commanded the highest prices at auction.” Webb would mount these stones into platinum, replacing white gold with yellow gold by the mid-1960s.
Webb’s jewelry was sought after by both the Manhattan and Hollywood elite, particularly Elizabeth Taylor and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, as well as Leonore Annenberg, Doris Duke, Evelyn Lauder, Andy Warhol, and Princess Grace of Monaco, among others. Fashion editor Diana Vreeland’s iconic look was enhanced by Webb’s enamel zebra bracelet. As with any auction item, provenance is key in increasing its value, often driving staggering prices.
Webb tragically died of cancer in 1975, but left an incredibly rich and diverse archive of jewelry designs, including more than 40,000 original drawings and sketches.
Today, the company still creates designs in the spirit of his vision. The original approach to craftsmanship by skilled artisans has also been retained by workshop (still located above the original flagship Madison Avenue store).
Signature Designs and Collectible Jewelry
Webb’s designs are always in demand, says Astrid Fialka-Herics, head of the Jewelry and Watches department at Dorotheum. “His creations attract both national and many international customers.” Fialka-Herics also notes that pieces from “his active period” are of greater interest to collectors, “as well as the more unusual-looking ‘one-off’ creations.”
Popular David Webb jewelry motifs include:
- Geometric and spiral-themed
- Signs of the Zodiac
- Heraldic jewelry
- Art Deco
Webb is best known for his animal-inspired jewelry, especially his bracelets, first launched in 1957 and continued from 1963. Enamel animals and carved bodies are considered Webb classics, followed by gold repoussé, which were created as bracelets, brooches, rings, cufflinks and more.
In his further exploration of nature, Webb designed limited edition seashell-inspired jewelry in the early 1960s.
Also popular are his garden-inspired designs. From 1962 to 1964, he designed an array of fruit and vegetable brooches, which sell particularly well at auction. In the late 1960s, he began designing elegant floral brooches.
Another iconic design is his geometric and spiral-themed jewelry from 1960s and 70s. These pieces are typically found in solid gold, sometimes with diamonds.
Rare at auction are Webb’s zodiac jewelry. Designed from 1968, Webb created pendants, bracelets, buckles, rings, sautoirs and brooches; made in solid gold and sometimes found with diamonds.
He also embraced heraldic pieces. Since the early 1960s, he designed a series of Maltese crosses in a variety of enamels and stones mounted onto gold.
His Art Deco pieces remain particularly fashionable, such as the chandelier style, which can achieve high prices at auction.
Similarly, Webb’s rings also perform well at auction. With a variety of designs available in the market, rings can sell anywhere from $750 and up for a simply designed 18k gold piece.
Tips for Spotting Counterfeit David Webb Pieces
With designer fine jewelry, stone quality and materials must be authenticated. Additionally, one must ensure that the piece is an original Webb design. Fialka-Herics explains, “One should pay very close attention to how the pieces are made.”
Other considerations to keep in mind:
- Acquaint yourself with industry standard materials and vocabulary.
- Hallmarks are crucial for proving authenticity and provenance.
- When buying online, check Trading Standard websites like Brand-i, or request information on hallmarking.
- Beware of unusually low prices; this can be a sign of counterfeiting.
- Finding signed Webb jewelry is always a plus. However, according to Alexander Eblen, “the manner in which authentic items were stamped is not uniform throughout their history,” and that “there are instances where [he] did not sign [his] work.” Eblen’s advice is to acquire a letter of authenticity from David Webb.
In an effort to preserve the item’s condition, Fialka-Herics cautions collectors to wear it with care. “Jewelry is meant to adorn and not to be an everyday object.” She also advises owners to ensure that “storage conditions (such as temperature and humidity) are not overly harsh,” and not to be afraid to ask questions on specific items before attempting to clean them.
Webb’s bold and luxurious jewelry is still worn today, and notable celebrity fans include Gwen Stefani and Jennifer Lopez. These pieces not only make a great statement in your wardrobe but are also a good investment, with his unique jewelry remaining highly collectible.
With the brand’s 70th anniversary on the horizon, now is a good time to invest. As Fialka-Herics asserts, “one-off creations will most certainly become more expensive.” Similarly, Eblen suggests that collectors seek out Webb’s classic designs from the 1950s and 1960s that “took advantage of stonework to a greater degree; […] intricately sculpted stonework using materials such as rock crystal, onyx, turquoise, and coral, especially when combined with diamond accents; [and for saleability], earrings and bracelets.” However, Eblen advises that whether making an impulse purchase or strategically acquiring the next addition to your growing collection, always buy what you love. “That is the single most important message that all of the best collectors I have ever worked with have shared.”
On the hunt for the perfect statement piece? Explore more dazzling jewels available now on Invaluable.
About Fiona McKay & Xenia Capacete
Fiona and Xenia are fashion curators and exhibit makers, and founders of White Line Projects, a curatorial and creative studio based in London. White Line Projects curates, designs, and produces a diverse range of outcomes including exhibitions, installations and digital experiences, and websites for a wide range of clients in the fashion and cultural sectors. Fiona, Xenia, and the team at White Line Projects bring a diverse combination of skills and background experience ranging from visual communications and 3D technologies to architecture, art history, and exhibition design to theater design and performing arts.