Known for his famous Cable jewellery designs, David Yurman opens up about his passion, family, and career
While some people believe art only belongs hanging on a wall, David Yurman reverts to a more classical understanding.
“I learned that you don’t separate the commercial and say, ‘Well, that’s commercial. I want to be a fine artist.’ It’s all the same. It’s all art,” says Yurman, the founder of his eponymous jewellery brand. He explains that traditionally, art was aesthetically pleasing but also functional; fine arts and applied arts were one and the same.
“Our designs don’t come to life until they’re worn,” he says. “What we are doing is fusing art, fashion, fine jewellery, design, and commerce.”
When he started, Yurman says fashion jewellery mimicked clunky, fake costume jewellery. But three and a half decades ago, his company launched its Cable Bracelet, a piece so bold and beautifully designed, it was likened to wearing fine art. That masterpiece has defined the 21st century jewellery industry.
With his pioneering approach to jewellery design, Yurman intimately connected people with jewellery, and likewise with the richness and beauty of art.
“We bridged the gap between fine and fashion jewellery,” he says.
His first love
Yurman grew up in Long Island, but moved to Provincetown, Massachusetts, during high school. There, he met Cuban sculptor Ernesto Gonzalez, who taught Yurman how to weld, braze, and create beautiful 3D objects from metal.
“From that point on, I was in! I knew what I was going to do,” he says. “I was going to be an artist. I was going to make little sculptures.”
Yurman’s first pieces of jewellery were small bronze pieces that he welded and sold in high school.
“If you’re an artist, you’ve got to be a dog with a bone. You’ve got to work it. This is your passion. Every artist leaves the world, and what defines them is their work. If you want to be successful, you need to listen and work hard. You’ve got to be there at 2:00 in the morning.”
In the Greenwich Village art scene in New York, Yurman apprenticed under some of the finest metal artists, including Jacques Lipchitz, Theodore Roszak, and Hans Van de Bovenkamp.
Hans Van de Bovenkamp taught him not to separate fine art and applied commercial art, and that one medium doesn’t have superiority over another.
“The thought, the feeling—all that you go through to bring forth what you know is yours, not someone else’s,” Yurman says. “It is your statement.”
This philosophy would free Yurman to later transform the jewellery industry.
Halves of a whole
As the foreman for Hans Van de Bovenkamp—who is now a dear, lifelong friend—Yurman met someone else who would forever change his destiny.
“You know love at first sight? That was it,” he says. “[Sybil Kleinrock Yurman has] been my partner. She’s been my trusted visionary. She’s been my mentor. And I, without a doubt, I would not be here without the partnership, love, support, and creativeness of my wife.”
Sybil was a painter, born in the Bronx. They connected over a common aesthetic language—David loved her works, and she wanted to learn about metal patinas.
“We had certain truths we wanted to express to the world. We wanted to create things that touch us. If it’s beautiful, it’s real—it’s true,” he says. “We knew we wanted to make jewellery, make it our livelihood, and take our concept to the jewellery market.”
The creative team serendipitously soon got their chance. A short time after they met, David welded a necklace for Sybil from bronze rods, donning a number of figures interacting together, called the Dante necklace.
“When I was making it, I kept wondering, ‘Will Sybil like it?’” David said. She thought it was beautiful and wore it to a gallery on Madison Avenue. A woman asked Sybil where she got it, and she replied that David had made it. Then the woman asked if it was for sale.
“At the same time, I said, ‘No’ but Sybil said, ‘Yes!’” Sybil took off the necklace and left it with the woman, who, it turns out, was the founder of the gallery. Within a few hours, four necklaces sold, and the iconic jewellery house David Yurman was born.
Over the next 10 years, David and Sybil Yurman drove cross-country, selling $1 million to $2 million worth of jewellery every year around the U.S., building a loyal brand following.
Going backwards to go forwards
In the early 80s, jewellery companies were struggling with the rising price of gold. Yurman even considered—immaturely, he says in retrospect—selling his business and going back to sculpture.
Instead, he decided to try something new, though inspired by something centuries old. When he was in his 20s, he would drive Sybil to her class at Hunter College and then visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He was especially enamored by the Grecian, Roman, and Etruscan jewellery there.
“I loved the strength of those forms. It was like visiting my heritage. It opened the door for me. It was like family,” he says. He remembered those early inspirations and started developing his Renaissance collection.
He twisted gold and silver rods and wires together into a helix, then he added gemstones to the bracelet’s ends. He called it the Cable Bracelet, and launched the collection in 1983.
“For years, people thought of luxury as not attainable or attainable by very few. We thought differently and wanted to make something more accessible—casual American luxury,” Yurman says.
It was opulent, but blending gold and silver made it more casual.
“The way [the metals] were balanced, you felt that there was this historic sense of opulence that you can wear with a jean jacket. So we were taking it and playing with it—just changing the vernacular. But it’s still steeped in the tradition of classic art and fine jewellery.”
The Cable Bracelet was an instant hit and transformed the face of luxury jewellery in the United States.
“Cable has become a symbol and a signature for us,” he says. “It’s the connectivity and the art of what we do.” Today, with 136 variations of the original with many choices for ornamental details, not only are you wearing art, you’re wearing art that expresses more closely your own individuality.
Past and future, East and West
Reflecting back on his successes, Yurman emphasizes that his legacy is not his own, but his family’s.
“We are a family business,” he says. “Sybil is my north star. We collaborate on everything: finance, marketing, design, distribution. It’s like, together, we make one smart person.”
Their son, Evan, is now the chief design director, and the three of them together collaborate for each product.
“We get our inspiration from so many things—nature, unique materials, one-of-a-kind gemstones, and our favourite places,” Yurman says. Every year, for example, David and Evan hunt for gemstones in Tucson together.
Family travels and past experiences linked to Asia have inspired a new collection rooted in the beauty of Japanese origami, which David, Sybil, and Evan all adore.
When Sybil was young, her father would bring her beautiful little dolls and origami from Japan. Sybil and David designed the collection together, “bringing the art of folding paper to metal, twisting and turning strands of Cable into fluid shapes,” he says.
“Whatever we do really has to fit into following the classical tradition.”