The Metropolitan Museum of Art | Accidentally Wes Anderson

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

New York, New York | C.1870

Photo Credit: Accidentally Wes Anderson

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New York’s beloved Metropolitan Museum of Art was first envisioned by a group of Americans in Paris in 1866, who agreed it was time to create a national institution of art back home. As swiftly as the pace of New Yorkers during rush hour, the Met was funded, founded, and soon took its place among the world’s great art centers. By the early 20th century, it had acquired paintings by the likes of Renoir and Matisse, amassed the most comprehensive spread of American art in the world, and was exhibiting the largest collection of Egyptian art outside of Cairo. 

Today, its countless galleries span the globe, showcasing art from every medium and continent, with work dating back several millennia. Tens of thousands of pieces are on view in the Museum’s two-million-square-foot building. Hidden wonders abound. The institution’s guiding mission statement includes the purpose of “encouraging…the application of arts to manufacture.” Few have fulfilled this more brilliantly than David Webb, America’s quintessential modern jeweler. Ironically, this “modern” artist’s success was achieved by closely observing ancient crafts.    

Born and raised in Asheville, North Carolina, Webb felt stirrings of a “tremendous feeling of art” from a young age. At 9 years old, he was introduced to metalwork, which—combined with an apprenticeship at his uncle’s jewelry factory—determined how he would channel that tremendous feeling. At 17, he moved to NYC to pursue his craft among the sparkle of big city living. Indeed, Manhattan provided ample inspiration…but not by exposing him to the latest trends adorning fashionable passersby. Instead, David Webb found his muse by frequenting the Met.  

There, he could journey back in time and study the elaborate armor of Mayan rulers; drawings of Celtic knots and swirls, sculptures of Buddha and other deities; Middle Eastern craftwork; or decorative Chinese handscrolls. Such relics of the distant past inspired his “recipes” for the future. After perusing the galleries, Webb would return to his workshop and translate such bygone styles into jewelry for modern, unabashedly glamorous women. He first gained notoriety for his dynamic use of gold, which he combined with alloys that gave his pieces a luster more closely resembling Incan or Egyptian artifacts than predictable Park avenue bling. He polished them for days to attain that ancient look: drenched in history, fit for an exhibit. 

He caught the attention of elite department stores and those who patronize them. But his reputation really erupted with Webb’s Kingdom Collection, which roared onto the scene in 1957. Brooches featuring ceremonial elephants, happy lions, and angry beavers were pinned to luxury furs. Bedazzled monkeys swung from pendants. Big cats ran wild across bare necks. These creatures of wonder were most visible on the wrists of global dazzlers, as his beastly bracelets became pets to such stars as Barbara Streisand, the Duchess of Windsor, and Elizabeth Taylor (who commissioned a veritable menagerie). 

In the late 1960s, Webb’s gaze moved from the earth up to the cosmos. Though humans have contemplated constellations for thousands of years, Astrology saw a unique surge in the 20th century, sparked by the introduction of daily horoscopes. Soon came the dawning of the “Age of Aquarius,” ushering in a zodiac craze that heavily influenced popular culture. Everything from Betty Crocker cakes to Wurlitzer jukeboxes to Zippo lighters took on the Zodiac’s name. 

A flashy new style? Recalling multiple ancient cultures? Primarily represented by animals? For a bold new era? You bet he got involved. Enter the David Webb Zodiac Collection: A New Take on a Classic Theme.

Webb’s workshop was abuzz, as astrological symbols were incorporated or etched onto hammered gold pendants, brazen belt buckles, elegant brooches, and intricate rings. The most exquisite manifestation of the line, however, were the bespoke bracelets. Among those was the Libra bracelet, one-of-a-kind, crafted for a private client in 1968. Surrounding Scales’ symbol are polished gold links, balanced with blue enamel, accented by varied diamonds and an emerald.

Such designs would have been drawn out in immaculate detail in Webb’s archive of nearly 50,000 original “recipe cards” and drawings. Luckily, these continue to be faithfully consulted before a piece is created—always on the premises, as they have been since the boutique’s inception. It remains the only fine jewelry store in NYC to have an adjoining workshop…with the bonus of public access to Webb’s wellspring of inspiration, located a mere subway ride away.  

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