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David Webb, a Southern-bred jewelry designer who managed to infiltrate elite enclaves in the Sixties and Seventies, is the subject of a retrospective at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Fla., through April 13.
Located across the water from the winter stomping ground of several of his patrons, the venue, as well as the exhibit’s subtitle “Society’s Jeweler,” befits Webb’s social access, which resulted in a remarkably prolific career cut short by his death in 1975 at age 50. But more than high society, Webb’s work acted as a barometer for a grander social context, according to exhibition curator Donald Albrecht.
“We usually don’t think of jewelers as commenting on social issues that reflect their time,” said Albrecht, who devoted one of three sections to Webb’s frequent portrayal in media, including magazine editorials and Hollywood films. “Editors saw the link and ran with the opportunity, such as when Harper’s Bazaar featured an African-American model wearing his tribal looks as symbolic of civil rights and black pride.”
Webb also tapped into pop culture like psychedelia, exotic fads from around the globe and even politics through his use of jade regarding Nixon’s trip to China in 1972. Eighty jeweled pieces cover this ground along with his revival of Art Deco and love for geometric and nature themes. They incorporate unique commissions, often designed around an existing treasure provided by clients, and signatures that are still cast from his molds after new owners relaunched the bankrupt brand near his former atelier and boutique in Manhattan.
“It was a great coup to get many of these extraordinary one-offs, several lent by their original owners,” said Albrecht.
A displayed necklace for Marjorie Reed Gordon centers on boar tusks she bought in Paris. His ongoing relationship with Jackie O, who commissioned limited-edition objects as gifts of state during her White House years, is represented by a simple pair of dome-shaped, clip-on earrings in green enamel with gold raised dots. Elizabeth Taylor, another regular, pops up in a coral Maltese cross brooch and an original drawing for a necklace labeled under Mrs. R. Burton.
“We show the actual piece and its drawing that he’d sketch in colored pencil if we could find both,” said Albrecht, who provides two drawn concepts for one of Gordon’s pieces to explain how and why Webb went with the final version. “The exhibit is as much about the history of jewelry making and reveals how costly it was to make back then as it is now.”
Viewers get a real taste upon examining the 40 or so components that go into his deconstructed, signature zebra bracelet circa 1963. They also can watch jewelry makers performing every step of the long process at the firm’s headquarters in a newly commissioned video. Albrecht said a craftsman who identifies himself as a polisher has worked there since the Sixties.
“That there’s still a group of men and women making this stuff across from the Whitney Museum and it hasn’t been outsourced speaks highly of Webb’s placement in American design,” he said.