Despite the impression that he is all glamour and high jinks – a man known for his bombastic, flamboyant jewelry, often shaped like exotic flowers and insects – Webster is talking about the big issues. Not content with discussing gem shapes and trends, he narrows in on the ethics of luxury, the ways societal movements are affecting the jewelry business and – the industry’s most controversial new arrival – lab-grown diamonds.
Webster’s latest collaboration with Swarovski (he has already designed two Atelier Swarovski collections) is for Atelier Swarovski Fine Jewelry and is testimony to his weightier interests. Called Double Diamond, the collection features Swarovski Created Diamonds encased within octahedron-shaped, 14-karat recycled gold frames. “This is one of the first fine jewelry projects focused entirely on responsibly sourced materials,” he says. The diamonds sit alongside polished rose-quartz spheres, which, in many cultures, symbolize love. The ethos is contemporary but so, too, is the silhouette: the octahedron references the form of an uncut diamond and the angularity makes it an ideal accessory for this season’s gender-neutral tailoring. “Created Diamonds are probably the more disruptive part of the collection, because their introduction is causing a stir in the industry,” he adds.
Created Diamonds are certainly in the spotlight. Although the Victoria’s Secret Fantasy Bra, worn by one of the Angels at the annual fashion show, is usually covered in mined jewels and valued at up to $15 million (£11.7 million), the latest edition was crafted from Swarovski lab-made diamonds. Others in the jewelry world are snooty, dubbing such stones “simply not the real thing”. But Webster likes change. “It’s not about saying mined diamonds are a thing of the past,” he says. “It’s just another option – and there’s certainly more responsibility associated with a product that’s created, rather than something that has to be dug out of the ground.” With this collection, Webster feels these new options are being embraced, and that it’s also an extension of the work he has been doing for a long time with Positive Luxury, an initiative set up to encourage luxury shoppers to buy brands that operate sustainably. “Sourcing Fairtrade has become much simpler,” he explains. “For a long time you’d think, ‘Well, I believe in this but, bloody hell, it is hard work.’ Now it’s just becoming normal.”
In fact, since launching his eponymous label in 1990, Webster has always been something of a provocateur. In 1996, crown jeweler Garrard gave him a platform to show his work. In 2008, he was appointed its creative director, and later rose to chairman. To this day, he sits on the board, while his staff of 45 works out of the same London workshop as Garrard’s jewelers. In 2012, he united with the British Fashion Council on Rock Vault, a showcase initiative that has seen him play a role in the careers of numerous rising stars of jewelry design. It was Webster who took the duo Yunus & Eliza to Las Vegas to present their collections at the Couture Show, where they met an HBO executive and landed a gig as the official license holders for Game of Thrones jewelry. A year later, he was awarded an MBE in recognition of his services to training and skills in the British jewelry industry. When he’s not shaking up the jewelry world, or traveling to “gem hunt”, as he calls it, he shuttles between homes in Miami and London, and occasionally slips away to an abode on the edge of the White Cliffs of Dover. A fitting location given he’s always been in favor of life on the edge in the jewelry world and beyond.
His audience has also diversified over the years, often in unexpected directions. “I’m never surprised anymore,” Webster says with a smile. “Can someone who is a heart surgeon be a jewelry buyer? Of course they can.” But what keeps his clients coming back? “The one common thread is that I attract people who don’t mind their jewelry being noticed – it’s provocative in the sense that people will ask a question about it, rather than it being unsettling. It’s about pieces having a great storyline, combined with excellent craftsmanship.” The latter comes from the years he spent as an apprentice in London’s jewelry quarter Hatton Garden from the age of 16.
From the start, Webster knew he wanted to challenge the conventions of the jewelry industry, which can be, he admits, stuck in its ways. “I’ve always been a craftsman, and the craft is very, very important to me,” he says, “but I was being irreverent in my inspiration and my attitude – those things were considered to be disruptive.” Thankfully, the market was ready for Webster, and he now has over 150 stockists and a stand-alone store in London’s Mount Street. “What was disruptive then is normal now and everyone is looking for the next piece of disruption,” Webster says. “Something like a Created Diamond, of course it’s massively bloody disruptive. But I’m interested in the technology involved and the players that can no longer be sidelined. The industry, whether it likes it or not, is faced with change.”
Webster has also recently recruited his 27-year-old daughter, crediting her youthful perspective for keeping him up to date. Younger consumers are savvier than ever, and in this increasingly politicized world, jewelry can play a more nuanced role. “Jewelry has so much that is symbolic, or emotional, attached to it. You are more likely to express a belief in jewelry than you are in your shoes or coat,” says Webster. “I’d say that charms or amulets, or pieces that display beliefs, play a bigger part than ever before.” He has embraced having to expand his frame of reference and the source of his inspiration – whether it’s art history or iconic moments from pop culture – to speak to a new global audience. Every market is different, he says, and brands are foolish to rely on clichés. “You have to be aware of cultural differences and the things that could be looked at as a complete no-no, such as symbols or colors. If you’ve got a position that is diverse enough, you’ll quickly find that the world isn’t just one small place.”
Webster is intrigued to see how these conversations around diversity and inclusivity are propelled forward by youth and how they will continue to feed into the jewelry industry. “Imperfection is being embraced,” he says. “In a world where the technology exists to make things absolutely perfect, maybe people are starting to cherish things that aren’t so perfect. Those are ideas that are relatively new in jewelry.”
And that brings us back to lab-grown diamonds. “Maybe that’s where mined diamonds will have a new life,” Webster ponders. “If, in a lab, you can make perfect diamonds, then maybe what you’d celebrate in nature is the things that are not so perfect, the things that are unique or odd within the stone. In the end there’s room for both.”
This story appeared in the Spring/Summer 2019 issue of SALT magazine.
Image credits: Billy Ballard; Carlos Tischler/NurPhoto/Getty Images/David M Benett/Getty Images; Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic/GettyImage; Richard Young/Rex/Shutterstock; Rune Hellestad/Corbis/Getty Images