Seven months ago, when my closest friend was moving, I snapped up his rent stabilized 1700 square foot UES apartment. It is more than two times the size of my old space on a famous and quiet tree-lined block in the heart of Greenwich Village, where I lived, worked and redecorated four times for twenty some odd years. Although I am now nine blocks from a Staples, pay $6 for an iced tea, miss all West Side subway lines and need to cab to a 24 hour Korean grocery, my new tonier address provides more perks than square footage (read: dining room and second bedroom turned office space.) I live directly across from the entrance to Central Park and The Met, where I can now be on time for all 9AM press previews. More importantly, I live closer to some of my favorite and renowned jewelry houses: Fred Leighton, Stephen Russell and Buccellati where I can browse, try on and just peek into the windows whenever I need a fix. Dubbed a jewel-a-holic by a designer friend, I am by career a longtime jewelry editor, writer and purveyor of all things sparkly.
My new digs also offers a different idea of street style –which now means riding the elevator with women who sport Seaman Schepps, Verdura and vintage Cartier to grab a morning coffee. Each day, I can be transported to a fantastical world where culture, history and celebrity meet. Yesterday was one of those days. I had the treat of being invited to the David Webb atelier for a preview and discussion about the upcoming exhibition being unveiled at The Norton Museum of Art in Palm Beach (Jan 2014-April 2014) as well as a tour of the atelier. I was whisked up from the boutique on the ground floor to an elevator, which opened to showroom and behind the scenes workshop.
Since David Webb opened his first shop on East 57th street in 1950, two years after he launched his collection, all pieces were and continue to be produced on his premises.
I was first introduced to one of David Webb co-owners, Mark Emanuel, who along with Sima Ghadamian and Robert Sadian, acquired the company in 2010 and moved the business to its newest location at 942 Madison Avenue. He spoke enthusiastically about the expansion of the company, the archives with approximately 80,000 original molds and over 40,000 color pencil sketches. He took us around to meet the foreman and the jewelers, many who have been there at least since the 1970s, who still retain and display reverence for the technique and legacy of this eponymous house.
I had heard of the American visionary David Webb as a young girl from my mother, my own style guru who closely followed the fashion of the sixties and seventies. She owned one David Webb piece, a rock crystal cuff with a center gemstone, which is perhaps why the rock crystal bracelets are still one of my favorite pieces to this day and why trying one on in the workshop that had still yet to be set and finished, sent my heart a flutter.
If only it could be mine.
Emanuel took two other visitors and myself on a tour of the factory, where I met a jeweler named Ray who spoke proudly of being with the company since 1965 and pointed to photos of himself and some of the rest of the staff when he was 20 years younger. I took my camera out and began snapping away—
The 18K gold pieces that were cast and then hand-hammered were laid out to be connected into a bib style necklace akin to body armor. “Do you see yourself wearing this?” Emanuel asked. I answered that it might be slightly more of an overstatement than statement for my small chest, but I then immediately saw a color drawing of a pair of ruby, diamond and emerald earrings and said, “Those. I would definitely wear those.” Turns out they were an original sketch of a pair of earrings Jackie Kennedy owned and that were being recreated for the new collection. I then went on to covet a carved emerald and gold necklace that was being pieced together. “This is very similar to the one The Duchess of Windsor owned,” Emanuel explained. “We are changing the shape of the center stone and some of the other details,” he continued, as I positioned the pieces, the sketch and the jeweler for a quick photo before having to move on to the next part of the experience.
I thought about how I had previously traced David Webb’s work: the pieces worn by silver screen actresses of the early to mid sixties in sweeping, weepy melodramas such as Susan Hayward in “Backstreet”, Lana Turner in “Portrait in Black” and later on in “Madame X” and Doris Day in “Midnight Lace”. He captured the essence of the characters these actresses played in film and then went on to help define the look of two decades in American cultural history and win the hearts of renown women of those decades including Jackie Kennedy, The Duchess of Windsor, Diana Vreeland, Elizabeth Taylor, Nan Kemper, Gloria Vanderbilt and a veritable roster of who’s who of social and style fame.
Before even speaking with the curator of the exhibition and the director of the museum, I was drawn to the notion that Webb—whose style was bold, powerful and colorful and whose technique sometimes included 18 steps in production—represented the spirit and mood of today’s customer. He pioneered the way for jewelers who fulfill the desire for one-of-a-kind pieces that are as much art as they are jewelry and that meld imagination with heart, soul and intriguing motifs and materials. He worked in enamel, coral, jade, carved crystal, gold, a vivid palette of gemstones and pearls. David Webb would be as groundbreaking today as he was throughout his prime.
After my tour I did meet with the curator of the exhibition aptly named David Webb: Society Jewels, David Albrecht and Hope Alswang, the director of The Norton Museum of Art in Palm Beach.
Albrecht explained that there would be 80 pieces from the Webb archives and private collectors and that the exhibit would showcase a comprehensive look at the style and designs. It will include archival sketches, Vogue layouts featuring Lauren Hutton and Marisa Berenson shot by Irving Penn wearing Webb’s jewelry as well as photos of his broad range of celebrity clients. “We have mounted this show to display the breadth and context of Webb’s work.” He explained.
While listening to Albrecht speak about the jewelry, I was able to see some of the pieces that would be on view up close and personal, hold them, try them on and not want to part with them. “You get a sense of how Webb captured the cultural revolution of the later sixties and seventies as well as creating official gifts for The White House.” Albrecht explains, “I see 1968 as his turning point, when all his major influences came into play—his travels and mixing elements of distant lands, his play of earlier Cartier animals of the twenties and Chanel costume jewelry which he re imagined in the most exquisite of materials, his passion for exoticism and recapturing the Art Deco movement for which he had a true affinity, always with his distinctive wit and humor and his own very unique and bold aesthetic. This why so many of the important women of that time period adopted him as their jeweler.”
Hope Alswang adds to these thoughts. “David Webb could look at the hippie styles of the sixties and the disco styles of the seventies and translate this ‘street style’ into high-end luxury. He chose to do it in a freewheeling, playful, stylized but not ladylike way that says I want to be seen! This isn’t jewelry that is part of a women’s outfit—it is what your outfit should be built around. It sets the stage for the powerful women to become clients and friends.”
Albrecht adds, “Jackie Kennedy referred to him as “a modern day Cellini” and The Duchess of Windsor called him “Faberge reborn.”
I was almost sad to have to leave. I could have spent the rest of the day looking through jewelry, sketches and discussing each of these famous women’s purchases.
Upon leaving, I took a photo of the windows and entranceway, knowing now that I live only five blocks away, I can visit whenever I want a little fantasy and the magic of the rich history and to visit the rock crystal cuffs until I can make one my own–and ride my elevator with “the other” Madison Avenue ladies– in style.