Working woman's jeweler shines with versatility

Designer: Former truck driver and sculptor David Yurman's go-anywhere creations are 'a big deal.'


It's 3:30 p.m. on a rainy Thursday in Boston, and New York jewelry designer David Yurman is strolling casually -- and anonymously -- through Saks Fifth Avenue. Already, he's checked out the jewelry department (of course) and menswear. Now he's quietly headed to shop colognes when, alas, his cover is blown.

"You're David Yurman!" says an awe-struck Marsha Primack, who intercepts him at the escalator. "You're my favorite designer. I love your work. I have your ring. Look!" she says, holding up her hand for inspection.

Adds Andrea Primack, Marsha's daughter: "I live in Houston and everybody is dripping with David Yurman down there. You're a big deal."

Harry Winston Inc., eat your heart out. To become a famous jewelry designer today, you don't need glittering diamonds and a celebrity clientele. You need designs that working women can wear every day and night.

A former dishwasher, truck driver and dry-cleaning delivery man, Yurman found success with a simple bracelet. Fourteen years ago, he twisted silver strands into a cable-coil design that quickly became a classic and earned him millions of dollars.

Women love the open-ended design (the bracelet isn't a complete circle) because it's a look that can be worn to work or dinner. And the style -- often seen with jewels or gold adorning the tips -- is so recognizable that it's now considered a prestige brand. (Yurman says the style originated in ancient Egypt. He modernized it by making the metal lighter and easy to wear with a hinge in the circle.)

Yurman -- who gave up studying economics at New York University years ago -- advertises his work in magazines such as Vogue, Vanity Fair and Forbes. He has expanded his collections to include men's and women's watches, cuff links, rings, belts and necklaces. Soon he will introduce home accessories, such as cutlery and vases. In November, he'll open his first store on New York's Madison Avenue.

"We're bridging the gap between fashion and fine jewelry," says Yurman. "Part of my job as a designer is to sense the mood in fashion and look for what isn't there" in jewelry. With that in mind, Yurman recently introduced a collection featuring chalcedony stones (periwinkle blue) to match all the gray clothes of last winter, and pink tourmaline to coordinate with all the trendy pink items of spring and summer.

Yurman, a New York native, is the son of a belt maker. He began his career as a sculptor in the 1960s, apprenticing with artists such as Jacques Lipchitz and Theodore Rozack. "I learned about the ritual of art," he says. "To center yourself, you establish a living pattern and do the same thing every day. That way, you don't have to think about it. You only think about your work."

In 1970, Yurman began making accessories -- mostly sculpted belt buckles. A friend suggested he could sell the goods at accessory and craft shows. "I borrowed $500 from the Jewish Free Loan Society," he says. "I made a belt for my wife [Sybil] and we walked into an art gallery where the owner gasped and wanted to know if the belt was for sale. I said no and my wife said yes. ... I was thinking, 'I made that belt for you!' "

The Yurmans ended up leaving the belt at the store and the owner took four orders for it in one hour. "My motto the last 15 years has been, be careful what you wish for, you may get it," Yurman says.

In the early 1980s, Yurman's customers grew from craft and art galleries to include stores like Neiman Marcus and Saks. In 1985, he introduced his cable-coil collection, which established his name. "I remember showing it to Cartier. They said it would never sell," he says, laughing.

These days Yurman -- who runs his company with his wife -- employs 150 people, including 12 product developers. "I sketch. They execute. ... I relish a weekend when I can listen to music and skim through art and architecture magazines, and then sketch," he says.

Yurman produces thousands of sketches a year, but only about 200 to 250 new products.

Like any good jeweler, Yurman has to worry a lot about knockoffs. "We have three legal situations in the fire now," he says. In 1996, the company successfully sued discount outlet Price Costco Inc. for promoting unauthorized Yurmans in its holiday catalog. Now the firm employs an in-house counsel and a paralegal.

"We're protecting the brand," Yurman says, but also concedes that "if you're not successful, they're not going to copy you."

To be sure, Yurman isn't for everyone. His prices range from $600 for a ring or bracelet to a whopping $19,000 for a new line of diamond and 18-karat-gold watches.

Still, says Marsha Primack: "When you're looking for the right bracelet, he's a great modern artist. His things are classic. They won't go out of style."

Pub Date: 06/27/99

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