We Chat With Gem Genius David Yurman

New York sculptor-turned-jeweler David Yurman set up his eponymous label with wife Sybil in 1980. Their bold designs, which combine unconventional materials with gemstones and diamonds, are now available all over the U.S. and in Paris and Canada. Most recently, the brand opened a shop-in-shop boutique in Holt Renfrew, Vancouver. We sat down with Yurman to talk design, inspiration and how being a terrible student became his biggest advantage. —Aileen Lalor

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Aileen: How did you get into jewelry design?

David: In high school I was dyslexic and had attention deficit—at the time it was called, “David doesn’t pay attention.” I was a daydreamer, and I’ve been dreaming ever since, I guess. I was a terrible student. I wasn’t particularly good at drawing, but I liked to make things—I carved soap, twigs, rocks, anything I could. I made little shapes and things and found I could concentrate for long periods. Making things was really the only channel I had. Everyone wants to function well and it’s embarrassing to get bad grades and get left back. You really want to excel at something and my excelling was working with my hands. When I was in 11th grade, I met Ernesto Gonzalez in Provincetown—he was a pretty successful artist—and he did direct welding and showed me how to weld, then I started doing it in my family’s garage. That was my ticket to freedom.

Aileen: Is making jewelry art, or craft?

David: It’s a form of expression and also a craft—you can’t express yourself unless you practise the craft. You fumble around trying to find your language. And you might know what your language is but if you don’t have the craft, you can’t communicate. I’m a big fan of practising a craft whatever it is.

Aileen: Where do you seek inspiration?

David: My wife Sybil is a painter and we’ve co-designed pieces—we work together all the time. Sometimes she would say, “We need more iconic pieces,” and I would say, “First I’m going to stop at the Inspiration Store—there’s a new one that just opened in Brooklyn. Then I’ll go back to 42nd Street to the Iconic Store ... ” You don’t find inspiration. It finds you. We think in terms of things. Inspiration isn’t a thing. It’s a confluence of moments.

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Aileen: What’s the piece that defines your brand?

David: The Renaissance bracelet, which is a cable-twisted rope with open ends. That’s really the iconic piece—the one I got from the iconic shop. Most of our jewelry is that it’s day to night—that’s a signature.

Aileen: You were one of the first jewelers to mix sterling silver and diamonds. Why?

David: The idea was to bring diamonds into silver to make diamonds more affordable. We didn’t set out to create something but in retrospect but we created a category that didn’t exist in jewelry, which was kind of a relaxed, accessible luxury. It was a moment when women were saying, “I don’t need my husband to buy me jewelry—I can do what I want.” And it can be diamonds, pearls ... Having it your own way, buying it for yourself was very empowering.

Aileen: How did you meet Sybil?

David: We were working in the same sculpting studio. I was smitten by her physically when I first saw her. She was kind of striking and somewhat unusual. She had black hair like Cher—as much or more. She took very big steps and had black boots with red laces and bells and she was wearing two Peruvian ponchos, one on the top and one on the bottom. It was really strange. And I remember seeing her walking across the studio. Clink clink ... It was like Clint Eastwood. I said, “Whoa, that is unbelievable! What is that?” A Christmas tree of ponchos, all that hair. And she has this incredible purpose of walk. We became friends. Then I went to her apartment, saw her paintings and I was like, wow. It all melds together. I fell for the whole package.

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Aileen: How does your creative partnership work?

David: It’s not perfect harmony. It’s messy! There are two collections that are absolutely from Sybil’s inspiration. One is Supernova, and the other is Starburst. They both have to do with fireworks. It’s the idea of the explosion. There are two things that make Sybil cry—that really hit her, and she’s a pretty tough lady. One is bagpipes, they make her well up every time. The other is fireworks.

Aileen: What do you think of Vancouver?

David: Flying in it’s kind of beautiful, though it was grey. I like grey—a little rainy, a little in and out. I like crisp autumn, I don’t care for summer—too much glare, it’s too hot. I like being able to go inside, light fires. Vancouver is not what I thought it would be. I don’t see a lot of people jogging in their special jogging clothes. It’s sort of hodge-podgey, which I like. It’s not so planned out. You always have a sense that you’re in nature.

Aileen: What other jewelry designers and brands do you rate?

David: I think Stefan Hemmerle is brilliant. I like De Grisogono and Paul Morelli that are quite brilliant. I like them all because they’re craftspeople with great attention to quality. I particularly like Hemmerle because of his sculpture background. He’s pure and deep. Is my work pure and deep? It’s getting there! I’m working toward it!

David Yurman’s products are available at the store-in-store boutique at Holt Renfrew, and online at Davidyurman.com.

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