Top U.S. jewelry designer, David Yurman, has had unfathomable influence in the world of accessory design; his signature cable bracelet is one of the most imitated jewelry motifs in the world. But, as we found out in an interview with him during a recent appearance at the Neiman Marcus Northbrook, the one thing he never had designs on was becoming a fashion icon.
Photograph by Peter Lindbergh
When David Yurman brought home his first welding torch in high school, his grand aspiration was to be a sculptor. He had tinkered with welding while visiting his sister in Provincetown, Massachusetts, in the late ’50s. He spent half his visit welding with his sister’s boyfriend, sculptor Ernesto Gonzalez, and the other half acting as a 16-year-old beatnik mascot at the height of the Provincetown beat movement. “I had carte blanche to go wherever. Franz Kline and Ginsberg were there. Norman Mailer was holding court; he was really embarrassing, just an obnoxious guy,” says David. When he returned home with a welding torch, his father agreed to let him keep it in the garage with the caveat that he be able to sculpt a recognizable hand. Ever ambitious, David began sculpting small hands out of brass in the forms of the sign language alphabet. He had made his way to the letter L when his father realized what he was doing. “He said, ‘Okay, you can keep it! You don’t have to do the whole alphabet,’” remembers David with a chuckle. Even when David sold the alphabet hands as necklaces with people’s initials in the high school cafeteria, he had no inkling that his passion for sculpture was leading him to the jewelry industry.
It was eventually his wife, Sybil, who ushered him into his new occupation. While they were still dating, they attended a gallery opening and Sybil wore some of David’s lovingly crafted pieces designed specifically for her. The gallery owner took notice and gushed over them, inquiring if they were for sale. As David said, “No,” Sybil was saying, “Yes.” And with that one word, an empire was born with a now estimated $450 million in annual sales.
With his record of producing status symbol jewelry, one would expect David to be intimidating in person and upon first sight he was. As I was led by an armada of coordinators toward the man himself, he was deep in conversation. His suit suggested an air of unattainably hip, New York professionalism and his manner of conversation appeared to contain a level of concentrated intensity that made me feel ill prepared and grievously underdressed. But as soon as we sat down, he proved to be the most approachable and open person I have had the pleasure to interview. His surprising candor made this legendary designer the perfect candidate for the Sheridan Road Interview.
What was your biggest childhood fear?
I was afraid I would fall down the elevator shaft, which was left open once when I was five or six. We lived on the fifth floor of an apartment building in the Bronx. I was always afraid I would fall down it and there would be no bottom.
What would you say is your greatest fear as an adult?
Maybe failure. Putting out a collection and it really dies. Like, ‘Oh, no more, David, no one’s interested.’
What’s your most treasured possession?
I never leave without this. [reveals a signature cable bracelet] This is probably the first cable bracelet. I’ve worn it since 1976.
Of all the supermodels who have worked on your ad campaigns, who’s your favorite?
They’re so individual. Kate [Moss] is a rock and roller. She stays up all night dancing and having fun. Amber Valletta is angelically beautiful and the loveliest person. She’s like a goddess. Daria Werbowy is like a tomboy surfer, torn jeans that she didn’t buy torn. She’s gorgeous. Naomi Campbell is not a princess, not a bitch, none of those things they say about her; she’s sweet as could be. She sat with my dog Mr. Sushi on her lap all through dinner.
So you’re a dog person instead of a cat person?
[Mr. Sushi] passed away. I’m a horse person. I have Mr. Scooter now.
What’s your personal catchphrase?
One that comes to mind is, “Be careful what you wish for, you might get it.” Also, “Sweat the details,” and “If you can’t imagine it, it probably won’t happen.”
What was your inspiration for this season’s collection?
We made a group called Moonlight Ice; it’s part of the Moonlight group. It feels right for the Goth girls; I call them the demi-Goths. They’re not really Goths because they’re going to become a nurse, they’re still going to have babies, but they have this side that they want to portray that’s in love with vampires. That’s just the thing right now. So we played with that a little bit and brought it into Goth-mom, who isn’t Goth. The mom of the Goth really likes it. And the daughter really likes it. So it bridges this generation gap. It’s a fun group that we’re making.
Bob Dylan or The Rolling Stones?
Dylan. I would never say Dylan. I knew him; I hate his guts. But his music is beyond. It’s beyond even him.
Who is your personal hero?
I don’t have a personal hero. Growing up I did. Erasmus of Rotterdam—he was such a unifying person. And then Gandhi. And after that it was Will Rogers.
If you had to have a different occupation, what would it be?
I’d really like to play blues harp. I mean really play blues harp. (shaking head) That Sonny Terry.
What do you like most about visiting the North Shore?
The people. There’s an openness in the Midwest that is so disarming. New Yorkers are impatient, annoyed, talk fast, think fast—but you can’t really think fast—we think we think fast. We think we’re smarter. In fact, we’re probably duller because you can miss moments by going so fast. Here it’s not a rush; you love your moments. I like that about the Midwest.
David Yurman is available at Neiman Marcus in Northbrook, 847-564-0300.