Welcome to Pop Culture Week! While you can always find us waxing poetic about the hefty overlap between fashion and pop culture, we're dedicating the next five days to the subject of our favorite music, movies, TV, celebrities, books and theater, and how that all intersects with the fashion industry.
Jewelry has been an integral part of hip-hop from the beginning. Kurtis Blow, the very first artist with a certified gold record rap song, wore no fewer than six gold chains (though no shirt) on the cover of his self-titled debut record, released in 1980. Fast forward 37 years to this year's Met Gala, which saw the three members of Migos take the fashion industry's biggest red carpet night of the year in a combined 13 fine jewelry necklaces, plus a healthy handful of bracelets and rings. While aesthetics have morphed in those decades — Flava Flav's human skull-sized clock pendant, Diddy's penchant for platinum, Gucci Mane's famous bedazzled Bart Simpson — the presence of luxury jewelry has not.
Like a trusted barber or fashion stylist, those at the top of the rap game have a preferred jeweler to collaborate with on one-of-a-kind pieces. Here are the four biggest names behind the grills, chains, and rings so icy, they may reverse global warming.
Jacob the Jeweler
You know Jacob Arabo through decades of lyrical name drops, album cover shots and public appearances from literally all the greats: Jay Z, Nas, Biggie, Ghostface, Missy, Usher and Puff Daddy, to name just a few. Arabo emigrated from Uzbekistan to New York with his family in 1979 at age 14, dropping out of school at 16 to take a six-month jewelry course and immediately taking up work in Manhattan's Diamond District.
Arabo's introduction to the profitable world of custom work for hip-hop stars came when Biz Markee wandered into his shop a full decade after he'd set up business. In a 1999 New York Times profile — which dubs Arabo "the Harry Winston of the hip-hop world" — Slick Rick shed light on the jeweler's early ubiquity in the genre: "Jacob is the only one in the diamond district that really caters to the style that rappers and urban minorities are digging now."
Arabo's latest coup is a collaboration with Kanye West, a tight collection of 18 karat gold rings and medallion necklaces inspired by 14th century Florentine art released in April of this year and newly available at Colette. Other recent projects include a million dollar watch for Travis Scott and a gold paper clip for Off-White.
If anyone can challenge the name recognition of Jacob the Jeweler, it's Ben Baller (born Ben Yang). The Los Angeles native worked as a producer with Dr. Dre for over a decade before taking up the family biz — jewelry. After a dozen years crafting custom pieces for all the top artists, Yang announced his retirement in October of last year, candidly explaining, "I have lost the passion I once had for making/selling jewelry." No one was having it. "Soon as I make that announcement, I get a call from A$AP [Rocky]," he told XXL in a recent interview. "He's like, 'Mutherfucka, what do you mean you're tired of making jewelry? Who's going to make my jewelry?' And then 10 minutes later Tyler The Creator calls me like, 'Have you lost your mind? Are you crazy? I've got at least another 15 years of rapping. You gotta make my jewelry.'"
It was A$AP Ferg who convinced him to come out of a retirement, commissioning a pendant in honor of the late A$AP Yams, debuted at the second annual Yams Day tribute concert in January. "As soon as I dropped the Yams piece I get a text from Drake like, 'Motherfucka, you got to be kidding me! I need something,'" Yang reports. (His rebuttal: "I was like, 'You're not a jewelry cat. I know you're on the watch and stuff like that, but you're so weird. I know you.'") Of course, he did oblige Drake, as well as Justin Bieber and Lil Uzi Vert. While Yang has been yanked out of retirement, he has set up some pretty stringent guidelines to keep his work load manageable, and — as a result — even more exclusive: Yang will only take one client per month (he used to do five) with a $75,000 minimum, including a non-refundable $50,000 deposit. "I don't give a fuck. If they don't want to pay me, we don't have to do it, it's cool."
Elliot Avianne is the man behind the aforementioned Migos Met Gala ice-fest and is thought to be the unofficial successor to Ben Baller. Like Jacob the Jeweler, Avianne works out of New York City's Diamond District, operating from a storefront on West 47th Street opened in 1999. Avianne's first star client was Nicki Minaj, to whom he sold her first big diamond watch. Minaj introduced Avianne to Birdman and Lil Wayne, and today Avianne has worked with most of the genre's biggest names at least once, including Future, Drake, Young Thug, 21 Savage and The Weeknd.
He's especially skilled at creating watches so blindingly blinged out you'd probably need to pull out your iPhone to actually see the time. Avianne has also created some of the most iconic self-referential pendant necklaces in recent memory, including Quavo's "Ratatouille" piece, which renders in countless diamonds an image of the Migos member in a chef's hat holding a rat reminiscent of the rodent in Disney's 2007 animated film of the same name. He crafted an entire solar system for the neck of Takeoff, as well as a blingy Freakazoid for Offset, a pair of Yoda pendants for Quavo, and a Playboy-inspired bunny for (who else?) Playboi Carti.
Gabriel Jacobs opened shop in the Diamond District with his uncle Rafael Aranbayev and late cousin Eric Aranbayev in 2009; by March of that year, Knicks star Carmello Anthony was photographed in a custom piece by the family. In the time since, Rafael & Co. has crafted grills for Beyoncé, sold millions in custom pieces to the Saudi royal family and produced the half-million dollar engagement ring DJ Khaled used to propose to Nicki Minaj in 2013 (clearly — and that isn't a diamond pun — it didn't work out). The celeb client hook up came after a friend introduced Jacobs to iconic Hot 97 DJ Angie Martinez, for whom he made a custom piece based on the logo of her production company, Animal House.
Jewelry has been the family business since Jacobs's grandparents emigrated from Uzbekistan to Brooklyn in 1985, establishing a wholesale company as Mair's Sons Jewelry on Flatbush Avenue. Despite dealing in gems, it wasn't a luxe upbringing: Jacobs reports sleeping on the floor in a crowded East New York apartment as a kid, a perspective that helps him relate to the rags-to-riches tales of many rapper clients. "We understand the struggles when artists come out of the ghetto, the hard times that they've come through to get to that point. We came from that same thing," he told the Daily News.
Having established name recognition with biggies like Jay Z and Swizz Beats, Jacobs has become a go-to for the new class of superstars, mostly notably Lil Yachty, who has commissioned a coterie of ridiculously vibrant pendants from Jacobs. "The customer is always right. Even if they're wrong," Jacobs says. "The client can walk in here and tell me they want to put a diamond in their eyeball. I'll find a way to do it." (No one's actually asked for this — yet.)