Conversation with: David Yurman
May 5, 2014
It’s been a long time since jewelry artist David Yurman used his New York high school cafeteria as a storefront. Along with his wife and cofounder, Sybil, and son and newly installed Design Director, Evan, Yurman has created a bona fide heritage brand with clear cause for celebration: the 30th anniversary of that iconic twist of metal, the Cable bracelet.
KD: We’ve known each other awhile.
DY: Over twenty years!
KD: I always enjoy myself with you.
DY: Thank you. Are you getting paid to say that?
KD: We can’t ignore the obvious, and the most amazing thing at the moment—30 years of the Cable bracelet.
When did the Cable first come into your psyche?
DY: That’s a good question; probably the early ’70s.
KD: Did you ever imagine that you were going to reinvent the world of jewelry?
DY: Of course! You think this happened by chance? It was my master plan: I’m going to bridge fashion and fine jewelry, and I’m going to use art to do it! No, it just happened. I just kept on working a day at a time. There were times when I was, Where are we going with this? Who are we now? Mapping the future is dangerous stuff.
KD: When you first brought the Cable to the public, was it received as you had expected?
DY: The first moment was frightening. Actually, it was ’82 at a trade show …
KD: Were you there selling it?
DY: Of course, that’s what I do. I carried the bags. I was selling across the counter. I made the showcases and installed them with my four buddies—three are still here. That’s how we did business. When the Cable first came out, we didn’t do promotion. I had one very big, unique Cable piece with amethyst and emerald ends. It was 18 millimeters but wasn’t flexible. This was the presentation piece—not meant to be worn. Helene Fortunoff came by, and I wanted to show her the smaller ones, but she said, “No, I want to see that one.” I said, “That’s not for sale. It’s a showpiece.” “No, I want to see that one.” “Okay, Helene.”
KD: I love her.
DY: She goes “Uh!” and jams it on. Then she says, “Very beautiful. Can you take it off me?” “I can’t get it off you”—I knew that right away—”I told you it was a showpiece, Helene.”
KD: Did you end up with her hand?
DY: We iced it, put Vaseline on it, and eventually it came off. I thought, This is an auspicious start to selling Cable jewelry. Actually, Neiman’s buyers came by and saw the smaller ones and said, “These would be nice.” We were in our first catalog with Neiman Marcus—one in gold, one in silver, with pink tourmaline and emeralds. It was very successful.
KD: And today that bracelet is art on a woman’s wrist. She collects it, curates it. Many women don’t leave the house without at least three on. Of course, my personal goal is to make sure they have five to eight on at all times!
DY: I don’t trust people who don’t have good appetites or who wear only one bracelet. I don’t care if it’s my bracelet. It’s bracelets—there’s an ‘s’ at the end.
KD: Before you redefined the world of jewelry, you were an artist. At what point did you decide you wanted to create functional art?
DY: Well, it’s not going to sound glamorous, but I kind of oozed into it.
KD: As opposed to easing, you oozed.
DY: I didn’t ease. It wasn’t easy. I was actually making jewelry, small sculptures, in 11th grade.
KD: Were you preoccupied in class, making sculptures when you shouldn’t have been?
DY: No, because I had a welding torch, and that would be very dangerous. I was ADD and dyslexic, but wasn’t diagnosed with ADD until ’75. I would daydream and find my language in drawing and lines. I learned how to weld, and I had these little objects around. I put loops on them and sold them in the cafeteria.
KD: Were kids using their lunch money to buy jewelry instead?
DY: I got hauled into the principal’s office, and he said, “What are you doing?” “What do you mean? I’m selling some art pieces.” “You can’t conduct business in the cafeteria; it’s against the rules.” I told him, “You’ve got to show me in the rule book because I have deliveries.”
KD: So, where did you go to high school?
DY: Great Neck. We’re from Great Neck, and no one could be prouder; and if you don’t believe us, we’ll shout a little louder!
KD: Where did you meet your wife, Sybil?
DY: It was September 1969. I was working as the foreman in Hans Van de Bovenkamp’s atelier with a group of other artists making ornamental fountains. She walked into the studio, and I see this woman who had more hair than Cher. She’d been in Martha’s Vineyard the whole summer and was coming back to take a job as an assistant to Hans Van de Bovenkamp. I was like, Oh my God! What is that? She had two alpaca ponchos on, black boots, red laces, bells on one or both—ka-ching, ka-ching, ka-ching. She was like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, but no ugly. She became my girlfriend. We had similar aesthetics. She’s very intellectual about things, and I learned to talk about art with her. Art was our marriage.
KD: I love that you’re not a créateur who stands on the sidelines and directs. You physically go out and find stones. You’re in the tangible moment.
DY: This is a journey, and I’m not going to pass it off.
KD: Wasn’t Sybil actually pregnant with Evan at the time you were working on the Cable?
DY: She delivered Evan during the jewelry show—’82 was a great year.
KD: Isn’t that a sign that Evan is the person who would inherit your legacy? I hear he was recently named Chief Design Director of the company.
DY: Legacy is all man-made, but when you have children and grandchildren, you start thinking differently. You do have a legacy—things that live on that you impart to people you love, people of your blood. It’s kind of wonderful.
KD: It’s also wonderful to make beautiful things along the way that bring a bit of pleasure to people’s lives. I hope that means there are sweet little Chiavari chairs waiting for us in heaven with our names on them. I hope mine is front row.
DY: Absolutely. But sometimes not everyone can do it— the collaboration, the dance. I was wondering if I could do it with my son.
KD: And you’ve told me you’re a good dancer.
DY: So is he, and we’re getting better at learning the steps. Now we’re finding a way—talking about the actual product: What are we making? What are we doing? I think I’m learning more from Evan than he’s learning from me. He’s fearless about a lot of things. He can look into a stone and say, “This is spectacular.” And I’m, “I don’t see spectacular.” He says, “Let me tell you, it’s poorly cut, but with proper cutting and 10- to 15-percent loss in weight, it’s a spectacular stone—buy it.”
KD: The dance is coming together because you instilled that passion in him. You’re a passionate man, and Sybil is a passionate woman.
DY: People say, “Oh, it’s a love story.” The reality is that the love story is the love of what we do. I mean of course we love each other. But we also love the collaboration and interchange of looking at the birth of an object, the birth of a piece of jewelry, the birth of something creative. And it’s not an easy process. Everyone has a different point of view. I have mine, Sybil has hers, and Evan has his.
KD: What are your expectations now that he’s the Design Director?
DY: I don’t know that I have expectations. I have surprise.
KD: What a beautiful answer.
DY: I go into his design room every once in a while… where he creates his art jewelry and puts it on the boards. I’m looking at them thinking, Oh my God, these are incredible.
KD: When a woman puts on a piece of jewelry or a man puts on a ring, I believe that love is felt, from your family to the person who wears it with pride.
DY: It’s not about the objects. It’s the love you put in them.
Shop David Yurman at Neiman Marcus stores and neimanmarcus.com.