David Yurman On His Ever-Growing Jewelry Empire

by Paige Reddinger

It was the cable that built the empire: David Yurman’s passion for sculpture and the American Craft movement during the ’60s eventually turned into a booming business, making Yurman one of the most iconic names in fashion.

Why do so many jewelers start out as sculptors?
Jewelry is sculpture on a smaller scale. Both stem from a feeling; the emotion is then shaped into a tangible form. My work as a sculptor was the catalyst for the creation of the first Cable bracelet. Those same tools and techniques—heating, melting, and twisting long metal rods to create new forms—were instrumental in the development of cable as the defining motif in my work.

What was your first foray into jewelry?
My wife, Sybil, and I formed Putnam Art Works in the 1960s when we were living in Upstate New York. We were at the heart of the American Craft Movement, making buckles, belts, and jewelry. “Works” was a popular term at the time, referring to making something by hand. The belt buckles and pieces I was making brought art and craft together, crossing those boundaries through direct-welded bronze sculpture.

You started the David Yurman brand a year after your marriage. How did you initially navigate working together all the time?
From the beginning, as a sculptor and a painter, Sybil and I responded to each other’s creative ideas. Our different points of view created dynamic decisions in our life and art. People say, “Oh, it’s a love story.” It’s really our passion for art and design and the collaboration of creating. In our company, it’s two sets of hands and one creative vision.

How would you describe your work habits versus your wife’s? What qualities complement each other?
All my designs start with my Pilot Razor pen and a Moleskine sketchbook—there is nothing like a pen-to-paper sketch. I’m constantly drawing, whether at work or home at the kitchen table. Sybil is about fluidity and nuance—layering color and emotion. We are perfect complements.

What was the biggest struggle in getting your business off the ground?
The mundane challenges of financing—I had staff and craftsmen who were willing to work and produce, but we had to find the money to run the business. In the beginning, it came from friends and family and also from the suppliers who gave us extended credit. They were very much a part of our business and remain so today. What got us off the ground was a $500 loan from the Jewish Free Loan Society.

What surprises you most when you look back on what you’ve built?
The surprise is how much we’ve grown and the number of lives we’ve changed. Today, we have roughly 1,500 people that touch the product in some way.

Do you remember the moment when you felt “I’ve made it”?

We made a sale to the Neiman Marcus catalog, and it sold through almost immediately. Then we sold to the American Express catalog. I called to ask, “Did you misplace a zero? Is the decimal point in the right place? Is this the right order?” They told me it was a test order to see how well the product would do. They sent it to a few test markets with different demographics and then placed the real order. That’s when I thought, we’ve made it. How are we going to do this?

Why do you think the cable became such a signature for the brand?
Cable is an ancient form and the river that runs through everything I do. It unifies my designs. As a motif, it expresses the idea of unity in a strikingly visual way. Cable is a helix—rhythmic, strong, and flexible. Like DNA, also a helix, it has endless possibilities.

What’s the secret to building a jewelry empire?
Collaboration is the foundation of our company. I kept working one day at a time, but I couldn’t do it alone. First, there was Sybil and I sharing our love of art and our passion for making beautifully designed objects to wear. Out of that grew a professional collaboration with our business partners and a personal collaboration with the people who wanted to wear our jewelry. If there is a secret, it’s our commitment to quality in craftsmanship and our willingness to innovate.

What do you think about when you are designing?
As a designer, you’re affected by your surroundings and the world at large—travel, nature, and an appreciation for good design, no matter where you find it…an elegant car, a beautiful painting, or a perfectly decorated cake. They all have a profound influence on my work.

Do you have any habits when designing?

Part of the design process is solitary. I always play music, listening to everything from Andrés Segovia and Django Reinhardt to Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. When I’m working with my wife, it’s usually at the kitchen table. With my staff, it’s at a really long table with anywhere from two to eight people. I also have a ritual that includes a millimeter gauge, a Pilot pen, lots of blank paper, and trays of materials. It’s an iterative process. We probably touch each piece of jewelry an average of seven or eight times before it’s finished.

The brand has become known for its advertising campaigns.

Our campaign starts with product, and that truly is the focus of every one of our campaigns. It’s a celebration of what we have done that year. There is emotion and feeling in jewelry, and we try to match the feeling of a particular model to what the product tells us the story should be.

When did your son, Evan, join the family business?

He was 19 years old when he officially joined the company. He had already gone through a slew of various jobs and had always wanted to make jewelry for himself. He made a full collection, and we challenged him to sell it. He sold it at our trade shows, and it did very well.

Why did you decide to introduce men’s?
We started to expand on our traditional men’s pieces in a meaningful way about 10 years ago by focusing on inventive, creative pieces that were both expressive and masculine. We saw the opportunity to design handcrafted jewelry using unique materials like meteorite, forged carbon, titanium, dinosaur bone, interesting stones, and other elements that speak to our men’s customer—someone who is confident and very comfortable expressing himself.

Tell us about the newest collection.

The Hampton Cable Collection represents another unique evolution of Cable, and it is what I would consider our engineering masterpiece. The metal is sculpted into a pattern of smooth, articulated links with subtle movement that flow like undulating waves. It took over a year to get it right.

What are your interests outside of work?

When I’m not in the design studio, riding horses is my passion. I’ve ridden since I was 8 or 9 years old with my dad. I regularly compete in Western Reining events, and I have two pleasure horses that I just trail ride with a close group of friends.

Where do you spend the summer?

In Amagansett. I’m mostly with my family, and also ride solo or with my trail buddies on Saturdays and Sundays.

What’s next for the brand?
More designs and collections—they’re always evolving. I said to my wife, Sybil, many years ago that this is one long art project—it just keeps growing. Also legacy—collaborating with and ultimately passing what Sybil and I have created to our son, Evan, who is now involved in every part of the business. It’s an interesting transition, because it’s not the two of us mentoring him, it’s each of us teaching the other about the process and how we affect it.

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