The fascinating evolution of hip-hop jewellery

A new book dives deep into the relationship between the world of hip-hop and jewellery. By mixing punchy beats with polished diamonds, hip-hop’s bond with jewellery paved the way for the genre’s rise from the street corner to the global stage.

By Joshua Hendren

There are few cultural forces more powerful, or indeed far-reaching, than hip-hop. Birthed during New York City’s economic stagnation in the early 1970s, the movement transformed political and racial discourse, particularly that within neglected Black and Latino neighbourhoods in the Bronx, into one of the most dominant music genres in the world.

Throughout the ensuing decades, as hip-hop spread to an international audience, competition within the subculture grew, and, with it, new styles of poetry and visual art were introduced. DJs evolved their beats by playing with new ways of spinning records, and the movement’s most iconic figureheads took on more complex layering of sounds, metaphorical rap lyrics, and broader collaborations with genres, such as house and techno. Revision and rework was – and still is – a constant.

How hip-hop has shaped the jewellery landscape
Slick Rick wearing justice scale piece, diamond star and dome rings (Photograph by Clay Patrick McBride, 1999)

However, if there’s one thing that hasn’t changed over the years, it’s hip-hop’s storied love affair with jewellery – a relationship that’s documented in Taschen’s new book, Ice Cold: A Hip-Hop Jewelry History. Spanning four decades, the expansive tome breaks down the two creative fields’ enduring bond – spotlighting seemingly everything from Eric B & Rakim’s gilded pendants to the joint work of Takashi Murakami and Pharrell Williams – through a visual feast of archival imagery and illuminating personal essays from pioneers including A$AP Ferg, LL Cool J, and Kevin “Coach K” Lee and Pierre “P” Thomas of Quality Control Music. Following a foreword by hip-hop legend Slick Rick, author Vikki Tobak digs beyond the often ostentatious flashiness to tell a story with a much deeper cultural significance than is usually recognised.

“Like diamonds, hip-hop emerged under pressure to create a rarefied thing of pure excellence,” says Tobak, a culture journalist and independent curator who began chronicling the evolution of the genre with her 2018 photography book Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop. “It’s a scene as ancient as it is universal, a story that explores the intricate dialogue between culture, adornment, and identity.”

How hip-hop has shaped the jewellery landscape
Rakim (L) wearing a Mary pendant on layered gold-rope chains;
Eric B (R) wearing an eagle motif pendant on gold-rope chain, gold-nugget watch, and gold-nugget rings (Photograph by David Corio, 1987)

To even attempt getting to grips with this multilayered phenomenon, one must go back to the early 1970s. Both politically and socially, this was a decade of extraordinary change in which massive upheaval in politics, societal norms, and the economy swept through the United States, largely impacting Black communities, which often erupted with anger and frustration as a result.And there, among it all, a new musical juggernaut was born: hip-hop.

Clive Campbell, a Jamaican American better known by his stage name DJ Kool Herc, is the man often credited with igniting this revolution, throwing the first hip-hop party in 1973 at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, in the Bronx. Recognising a spike in crowd energy during the drum – and sometimes bass – breaks on the funk and soul records he spun, Herc came up with a technique of extending the beat by switching back and forth between two copies of the same record – a technique he called the “merry-go-round”, or “the break beat”, as it is better known as today. Just as recognisable was Herc’s signature fashion sense – a unique mix of Kangol hats, leather jackets and Adidas shoes without laces, with the pièce de résistance being a thick gold rope chain, which was imitated by legions of fans.

Bold gold chains gained further popularity in the early 1980s as a prominent fashion statement among artists, explains Tobak. “Hip-hop’s love of jewellery builds on a history of visual cues as status,” says the author, on the genre’s early adoption of large, extravagant jewels. “All around the world and throughout history, items of adornment, from gems and feathers, bamboo hoop earrings and Mercedes pendants, were used to connote something bigger. Like the music, the hip-hop jewellery game has always been competitive, bigger and bigger until you reign supreme.”

How hip-hop has shaped the jewellery landscape
A$AP Rocky wearing a three-piece cap grillz with open-face design, and yellow gold horseshoe ring with diamonds (Photograph by Mike Miller, 2018)

Photographer Phil Knott, whose images of hip-hop royalty feature throughout Tobak’s new book, concurs, noting that rap artists have often worn big, bold and courageous designs to express ambition over adversity. “It’s a working-class way of saying, ‘I’ve suddenly got a lot of money’,” according to Knott. “It’s the most visible thing you can show somebody. If I can afford to splurge this much on a chain and still carry on with my life, I’m doing alright.”

This notion is best embodied by the supersized neck candy worn by English American rapper Slick Rick. Rising to stardom with Doug E Fresh and the Get Fresh Crew in the mid-1980s, Rick was known for his insatiable appetite for jewellery and was rarely seen without stacks of icy baubles, from humongous rings purchased on Canal Street, Manhattan to platinum-and-diamond grillz, and his bejeweled eye patch custom-designed by Jacob the Jeweler. But perhaps the rapper’s most iconic piece of neckwear is his justice scale statement piece. Valued at an estimated $250,000, it features an oversized rope chain with a solid-gold plate pendant (roughly the size of Rick’s actual face) flush with a cluster of diamonds that form the scales of justice emblem.

“You see, the big jewelry brands didn’t focus on men who wore jewelry. They wouldn’t give these guys the time of day,” says Jacob Arabo, aka Jacob the Jeweller, founder of luxury jewellery titan Jacob & Co. “Not me. I always welcome them in my shop and treat them with a level of respect and interest that they did not find elsewhere.”

How hip-hop has shaped the jewellery landscape
LL Cool J wearing “James” nameplate ring, double- layered gold-rope chains, and Gruen gold-nugget watch (Photograph by Janette Beckman, 1988)

By the early 1990s, hip-hop artists were seeing unprecedented financial success. And, with bigger budgets and bolder lyrics came bulkier, flashier jewels. “It really was a great time, with great freedom. Whenever an artist would come to me, I’d offer them something they had never seen before, never even thought about,” says Arabo. “A watch with full diamond bezels, coloured diamonds, drawings turned into bespoke pendants, oversized necklaces, the large Cubans, the full diamond 5 Time Zone watch, rings with big gems, you name it.” Meanwhile, the genre’s female artists were going bold, too, most notably with the oversized hoop earrings that harkened back to the styles worn in Africa and ancient Egypt where they represented defiance, bravery, beauty and spiritual protection.

By the time the 2000s rolled around, the world of hip-hop jewellery had morphed once again. Necklaces took on new forms – from dookie ropes to Cuban links – rings were elevated in radical ways and the biggest stars, including Kanye West and 50 Cent, were customising their bling in ways never seen before. To cater to these new aesthetics, jewellery designers – from legends such as Tito Caicedo of Manny’s, to contemporary artisans such as Ben Baller and Greg Yuna – began experimenting with unique settings and new materials, including titanium, carbon fiber, enamel and even sustainable lab-grown diamonds.

How hip-hop has shaped the jewellery landscape
Ice Cold: A Hip-Hop Jewelry History by Vikki Tobak

“Hip-hop’s tradition of individuality was expressed through customisation,” says Tobak. “To have something nobody else has, to make your piece a bit more unique, to wear an article of adornment made with a one-of-a-kind design, to rock jewellery displaying your name, is to show the world who you are.”

Fast forward to today and hip-hop jewellery has become a staple on the luxury market. Industry mainstays, such as Gucci Mane, Snoop Dogg and A$AP Rocky, continue to set the gold standard, with rising stars including DaBaby and Lil Uzi Vert breathe fresh air into the landscape with standout pieces in a rainbow of gems and cuts. All the while, Nicki Minaj, Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B prove that female rappers enjoy statement pieces just as much as their male counterparts. Indeed, one of the most famous viral gems to recently emerge is Megan’s “Hot Girl” necklace, a medallion coated in baguette diamonds, with a reported price tag of $425,000.

How hip-hop has shaped the jewellery landscape
Kool Moe Dee wearing Mercedes-Benz pendant on a rope chain (Photograph by Michael Benabib, 1988)

“In many ways, hip-hop jewellery has come full circle,” says Tobak, “serving as a source of creativity and strength as modern issues of sustainability, equity, and mindful adornment come to light. As hip hop has gone global and diversified, so, too, has the jewellery industry’s reckoning with what it means for the world of hip-hop bling, a more expansive view of what hip-hop represents.”

With that in mind, the future of jewellery in hip-hop looks bright. While a new era of luxury unfolds and modern independent designers let their creativity soar, the imagination and ingenuity of hip-hop will also continue to set a shining example.

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