One of Elizabeth Taylor’s Favorite Jewelry Houses Let Us Inside Their Workshop

Welcome to David Webb.

By: Leah Faye Cooper
Photography: Ben Ritter

A lot of houses make it a point to preserve their founding designer’s legacy. There will always be tweed by CHANEL and tuxedo pants by Saint Laurent, as homages to Coco and Yves, respectively. Few brands, however, practice this to the extent that David Webb does.

David Webb launched his eponymous fine jewelry line in 1948, rising to prominence as the Manhattan-based designer whose pieces were a favorite among Jackie Kennedy, Elizabeth Taylor, and Barbara Streisand. Up until his death in 1975 at age 50, Webb sketched the design of each piece, outlining detailed assembly instructions on index cards and working with a small, dedicated staff of jewelry-makers to create them by hand. He was known for his animal motifs as well as his ancient-world influences and use of enamel, hammered gold, and gemstones.

Today, every piece of David Webb jewelry is still handmade in Manhattan, using Webb’s original index cards as a guide. There’s no creative director, as the self-taught designer left behind an archive of more than 40,000 sketches, many of which were never produced.

“It’s jewelry with a capital J,” says Mark Emanuel, who, along with a business partner, purchased the brand in 2010. “David Webb was an American master, and with time, the pieces gain a sort of iconic flavor. They’re still beautiful and relevant today. We basically perpetuate his legacy.”

Emanuel describes the opportunity to buy David Webb as “irresistible,” which is how we felt about the chance to shoot the boutique, workshop, and archive, located on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

Click through to see the historic space, where decades-old sketches are housed along with five-figure bracelets.

“Most customers come here and engage in an act of discovery. A woman could come in here with a preconception about what David Webb jewelry is, and leave with a completely different notion. To see it happen in our clientele is really quite extraordinary. It’s nice to see taste evolve and run the gamut as well.”

“It’s a brand that’s defined by the vision of a single artist, which, for the size and volume and variety of what we create, you would think that there would be 30 different artists.”

“[Everything is] made [on-site] under our guidance and supervision. And it’s made in America, here in New York, which is unusual.”

“We are studious about making pieces the right way... We’ve kept a core of great old jewelers who worked with David Webb to be part of teaching the legacy to the rest of the workshop.”

“The archive is vast and beautiful, and David Webb was a visionary. We were left with approximately 40,000 designs by him.”

“One of the great things about working from archives is that most of the options were never used. People know David Webb jewelry for the icons, the zebra bracelet, etcetera, but we’re presented with these beautiful options, and it’s so exciting to execute them. Every week there’s something new by David Webb that has never been made before, never been seen before. It’s a very exciting process.”

“The typical David Webb customer is one who is confident, who views jewelry as a form of self-expression. The jewelry is unapologetically colorful and sized, and it has a scale that speaks to courage and confidence.”

"When you think of David Webb, you think of its animalia—its beautiful carved or enameled animal bracelets; you think of its incredible rock crystal jewelry; David Webb owns that beautiful hammered-gold look. There are a number of very distinct columns of design DNA that David Webb has, which only David Webb has. It’s very distinct from other jewelry. That’s not to say that it’s better or more beautiful, but it has its distinctness.”

“It’s always so modern and wearable.”

“It’s a rare artist that has sort of a linear line of growth. But if you look at the evolution of David Webb the artist, he started out in the late 1940s as somebody who was young and under the influence of European jewelers, and made things that were not dissimilar to what you could find in the great French houses. His departure from that was a big step in his evolution. When the discerning customer base that grew to love David Webb insisted on something new, he as an artist responded to that.”

“When Jackie Kennedy and Gloria Vanderbilt and Liz Taylor came to him and said, ‘David, your animal jewelry is great,’ it only encouraged him to move from these floral 1950s statements into animalia. And then the social revolution came—the Vietnam War, feminism, the Civil Rights Movement, women seeking equality in the workplace...they were out partying at night as well. You had Studio 54. David Webb the artist responded to that and made these big, bold, colorful statements.”

“The Motif Collection is the type of jewelry that’s easy to put on, easy to wear, and it dates to a really unusual design fugue of David Webb from the early ’70s. What’s distinctive about the motif collection is that it uses all of those wonderful talents and techniques like enameling and the use of platinum and diamonds along with gold. It’s very youthful and resonates with a younger crowd that loves David Webb but doesn’t want to go all out.”

“The brooches that we make have a built-in versatility—they’re convertible as pendants as well.”

“If you look back, it can seem like sort of a dizzying, rapid progress, of a guy who had a short life, who died at the age of 50, who burned a very bright candle. But of course, with 20/20 hindsight, you can see coherence, and you can create aesthetic explanations and tie in cultural meaning to all these things he did as an artist. As a result, we’re able to create collections. But did he have the forethought to create these collections? I doubt it. He was too busy creating all the time. 24/7.”