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David Webb is Making Its Couture Debut
For the storied American jewelry brand’s new owners, their trade show introduction follows seven arduous years of rebuilding.
New York--When estate jewelry dealer Mark Emanuel purchased David Webb with business partner Robert Sadian nearly seven years ago, his grasp of the brand’s importance within a historical design context overshadowed any hesitation he might have felt regarding the state of its books.
“It was an emotional favorite,” Emanuel said. “A David Webb piece always looked different than everything else. It stood out in scale and execution and materials. We had a lot of familiarity with the iconography of the brand and with the secondary market values.”
“But,” he admitted, “that’s very different from running a brand.”
The company was bankrupt. Since Webb’s death in 1975 it had been run by his business partner, Nina Silberstein, and her family. By the time it arrived in the hands of Emanuel and Sadian, David Webb, in terms of commercial viability and infrastructure, was in shambles.
“I’m not sure that we knew the amount of work and effort that was required to resuscitate it,” Emanuel said, “but it was really exhilarating.”
What Emanuel had on his side was the brand’s design integrity. Throughout its post-Webb evolution, Silbertstein never strayed from Webb’s original designs. It’s a philosophy to which Emanuel also adheres.
His first step as one of David Webb’s new owners was to become intimately acquainted with its vast archives, which encompassed between 40,000 and 50,000 designs, many of which hadn’t ever been produced.
“We had at our feet a sort of extraordinary array of intellectual property, and the challenge was to study it and make sense of it and to seek a path forward with this trove of material,” he said.
With so much available design material, Emanuel and Sadian need never digress from Webb’s original creations, thereby avoiding that route’s myriad potential pitfalls.
“The key word is authenticity,” he said. “The jewelry is not imagined, it’s not created by a computer-aided design artist. It was designed by a real American master. I think that’s what is appealing about David Webb--how it really relies on the strength of its very visible DNA.”
Emanuel is fond of musical metaphors, likening his role as the “custodian” of David Webb to that of an orchestra conductor, deciding which pieces of music to play and how to play them.
The comparison is apt. In addition to formulating David Webb’s contemporary visual narrative, Emanuel
That involved the opening of a new flagship store and workshop on Madison Avenue in Webb’s native New York City in 2011.
Upon acquisition, there were only “six or seven” master jewelers employed at David Webb. Today there are 25. Emanuel even managed to bring back some of the jewelers who personally worked under Webb during his tenure.
In 2015, Emanuel and Sadian moved the David Webb Beverly Hills store back to the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, a location that the Silberstein originally opened in 1994.
Emanuel and Sadian worked to reintroduce David Webb into public consciousness, hiring the appropriate advertising, marketing and public relations teams to demonstrate the timeless appeal of the jewelry through its seamless integration into modern magazine editorials and campaigns.
They also began wholesaling with partners like Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue, a move which Emanuel said has been the most important step taken for the business.
Seven years after the company’s acquisition, Emanuel feels that he and Sadian have “restored the sheen” to the brand.
A ‘Couture’ Debut
Now, they’re bringing David Webb to the Couture show for the first time.
“We already have a couple of really good independents, and we’re looking to add a few more to our mix of retail partners,” Emanuel said. “We don’t mass-produce so we have to be selective in how we parse out our collections.”
That being said, they’ve made an effort to “do some work in improving some of our lower price points.”
Emanuel is focusing on Webb entry-level jewelry from its “Tool Chest” and “Woodworks” collections at the show, pieces that are instantly recognizable to Webb and have become iconic markers of his work.
For example, Webb’s “Bent Nail” earrings, made in 18-karat yellow gold, retail for $2,600. Their “Hammered Nail” ring counterpart is also under $3,000.
The bloodwood and ebony with 18-karat gold combinations that comprise the “Woodworks” collection start at a higher price point, $6,800 retail, but feel just as relevant and modern as they did in 1970.
Of choosing this particular moment to enter the trade show arena, Emanuel expounded: “After seven years (of ownership), we’ve gained a lot of perspective and a certain experience, and I think that we’re able to put together very workable business structures for potential partners. We have multiple price points and different collections.”
The Evolution of Webb
Emanuel didn’t begin his career in estate jewelry until a few years after Webb’s death, a distance which likely afforded him the necessary remove required to judge the company’s potential before taking it on.
At this point in his tenure, he is able to reflect on his role in the David Webb story.
“Part of understanding David Webb was to acquire a coherence. We evolved from two owners who were giddy and excited about all of this beautiful stuff to two owners who got down to this serious business of understanding the brand and deciding what to produce and how to distribute it.”
Perhaps it is this understanding of his own evolution that makes Emanuel appreciate the evolution of David Webb himself.
“What I appreciate most,” Emanuel explained, “is how if you look at the trajectory of his design and you look at where he started as an 18-year-old on 47th Street in 1948 to when he died in 1975, there was an extraordinary evolution from a young artist who had an affinity with nature and floral components and organic forms to a very seasoned and mature artist who worked his formal statements into beautiful bold abstractions with this very metropolitan sensibility.”
Emanuel believes in the proven timelessness of Webb’s designs, comparing them to a Cubist painting that still looks fresh in a modern setting.
He also believes that Webb’s work appeals to a particularly bold female customer who is ever-present in the marketplace.
“In the 1960s and ‘70s, there was revolution in the air. Women started asking for equity in the workplace and women were starting to find their own voice, and America was at the forefront of an exciting time in design, in philosophy, in art. The jewelry and the DNA that we are custodians of was all part of that.
“The same woman who wanted to wear something sexy and bold in 1972 exists today. Decorative arts and design, if done beautifully and classically, are always relevant.”
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