In 1987, a decade before the term “bling” invaded popular vernacular, underground hip-hop star Biz Markie came to upstart jeweler Jacob Arabo with an unusual request. Biz wanted a signature piece, something so big and eye-catching that it worked as a costume: in other words, something fans could see from the stage.
Arabo appreciated the challenge and got to work, designing the now iconic four-finger ring that spelled “Biz” in diamond-studded script. “Nobody back then would make something like that,” Jacob recalls. The performer loved it, wearing it not just at concerts but also for photo shoots and on the cover of his hit single “Just a Friend” that released the next year. The “Biz” ring had become part of Markie’s signature look and Arabo had unknowingly discovered his signature style.
After that, Arabo’s custom business took off. He made his clients comfortable: despite his exquisitely tailored suits and throwback pomade waves, he, like most of the rappers and athletes he catered to, had the faint shadow of the outsider, a memory of the time when the path to success was still poorly lit. But where had this renegade jeweler gotten his start?
In 1979, a young man named Yakov Arabov immigrated to New York City with his family. They were Bukharan Jews from Uzbekistan, then a part of the Soviet Union, and they arrived in the States with very little money. Arabov, just fourteen years old, enrolled in high school but felt compelled to help his parents with their financial troubles. In the United States, the young teenager wanted to build a professional career even before he graduated. He considered becoming a photographer, or a hairstylist, but he signed up for a six-month government course in jewelry design.
After learning how to use the tools of the trade, Yakov Arabov anglicized his name to Jacob Arabo, left school, and found a job at a jewelry factory where he earned $125 a week (approximately $338 today). It was a good salary for a sixteen-year-old boy, but Jacob wasn’t there for just lunch money; he had grand ambitions of earning enough to take care of his entire family. Within a few years, by the time he was twenty, he quit and opened his own retail stall on Sixth Avenue and Forty-Seventh Street, in the heart of New York’s diamond district.
Arabo displayed his creations in the window, which immediately stood out from the others on the block due to the unusual size and scope of his designs. His competitors told him he was wasting his time with showpieces; rather, regular income came from walk-ins, usually men in the market for diamond solitaires and young couples shopping for wedding rings. But Arabo hadn’t come all this way to spend every day dropping white diamonds into knockoff Tiffany settings. He remembers:
“Before I went into the business my friends told me — don’t. What are you doing, there’s sharks all around you, they’re gonna eat you alive. I said, I guess I have to become a shark.”
Jacob Arabo had already cut his teeth. The next step was learning the hunt.
Arabo opened his store in 1986. What he didn’t yet know — but would soon find out — was that his designs were actually a perfect fit for a certain population of high-profile, up-and-coming jewelry lovers who appreciated the kind of unique, outrageous, and expensive pieces he was displaying on Forty-Seventh Street. As Arabo spent his nights at home, laying diamonds out on white sheets of paper and envisioning how they’d inspire his next creation, a group of people heretofore ignored by the jewelry industry were in the process of rerouting the worldwide conversation about gemstones. They were an entirely unexpected segment of the US population: African American men.
By the early 1990s, rappers were becoming music industry powerhouses and unquestionably legitimate cultural influencers who were delivering their own unique flair to the masses. In doing so, they transformed the diamond’s profile so that a very costly, high-quality stone wasn’t just the gem of choice for blushing brides-to-be, actresses, and society doyennes, but also for black and Latino men who had reached a certain rung of affluence.
“With the hip-hop community, we remix the way things are used,” media personality Bevy Smith explains. Music producers sampled existing songs and gave them new beats, new meaning, and new life; in the same way, rappers took mainstream status symbols and made them their own. In the late 1980s, major record labels started investing in hip-hop, and suddenly, what had been an underground movement — with the exception of a handful of breakout acts — turned mainstream.
MTV promoted airwave-friendly rappers like MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice, but also took its chances playing controversial videos from the so-called gansta rappers like Dr. Dre and his protégé Snoop Dogg, the Notorious B.I.G., and ex–N.W.A member Ice Cube. The gamble turned out to be a very good one, and between 1990 and 1991, the music industry saw a sizable increase in profits with a decent percentage attributed to the rising popularity of hip-hop, roughly 9 percent of a total $7.8 billion in domestic sales. This meant that the artists were reaching wider audiences than ever before and that their bank balances were expanding in kind, with little dynasties erected around the country.
Producers and artists took great pride in their label affiliations, treating them almost like invitation-only clubs, or gangs, or sports franchises. Artists and producers often expressed their loyalties by way of their jewelry. Death Row Records CEO Marion Hugh “Suge” Knight Jr. and rapper 2Pac wore matching gold chains with large hanging pendants depicting the label’s morbid logo in diamonds: an inmate strapped to the electric chair. Cash Money Records cofounder Bryan “Birdman” Williams commissioned an enormous rectangular pendant with the label’s name spelled out around a sparkling dollar sign.
But not all hip-hop chains carried so much symbolic weight; others were what the diamond industry would call “self-purchases,” bought to make the owner look rich, or unique, or intimidating. Rappers gravitated toward traditional industry symbols like crosses and “Jesus pieces,” but they also one-upped one another with extravagant designs that ranged from intentionally shocking — Shawty Lo wore a “crack vial” that took advantage of the diamond’s resemblance to another kind of white rock — to playful and silly, like a PlayStation 3 controller, Bart Simpson, or a box of Crayola crayons. Bevy Smith describes how a young, newly wealthy rapper might end up going home with something like a gem-studded Garfield pendant:
“People had the most magnificent cartoon-character symbols . . . It was like being a kid in a candy store, but the candy wasn’t peppermint sticks, it was diamonds.”
Arabo was also more flexible than the average jeweler; following in the steps of his idol Harry Winston, he would let his clients walk out with million-dollar baubles before they paid him. He respected his customers and trusted that they’d make good on their balances. And they always did.
Arabo also accepted cash payments without asking too many questions and, more important, was unusually lenient when it came to letting them trade pieces in. After all, rappers were public figures who could get away with wearing their latest purchases only so often before they lost their impact.
Arabo accommodated them by taking commissions and then, when the time came, accepting old pieces back in trade as long as the new job was more expensive than the previous one. He never repurposed his designs, appreciating how highly prized the expression of individuality was within his target market of music industry celebrities and sports stars.
In the mid- to late 1990s, at the height of his success, Arabo — who earned himself the unforgettable nickname of Jacob the Jeweler — received countless lyrical acknowledgments, also know as shout-outs, from artists at the top of the game like Jay Z, Kanye West, Fabolous, and R. Kelly.
“I even met some of these singers after they sang about me,” Arabo says. “That was shocking.” These mentions didn’t just flatter the jeweler’s ego; they also boosted his public profile so that other up-and-coming performers knew who to call when they got their first big payout. Arabo had never invested in marketing, and the songs were the best kind of free advertising. They didn’t just attract other entertainers; they brought in average rich folk as well. Kids who heard his name on the radio would encourage their parents to go to the store to meet the famous Jacob.
Arabo’s Forty-Seventh Street stall became a revolving door of recognizable faces, including his own as he was photographed at exclusive parties and red-carpet events. “That’s how big [Jacob] got,” DJ, brand manager and hip-hop entrepreneur Peter Paul Scott remembers. “Not only did you walk around with the jewelry, you walked around with the guy.”
This excerpt is adapted from Brilliance and Fire: A Biography of Diamonds (Harper). Available to buy here.
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Top Photo: Courtesy of Jacob & Co.