What goes through your mind when you see some of hip-hop’s heavy hitters sporting exorbitant jewelry everywhere they go? Do you think they’re just living their best life, or they’re being irresponsible with their money?
The world of hip-hop is unique in many ways. It is one of the most expressive art forms available today. It’s common, expected even, to see some of the biggest names in the genre donning expensive diamonds, gold studs, rings, bracelets, grills, and watches. And with shows like Youtube docuseries, “Ice Cold,” where stars like Migos, A$AP Rocky, Lil Baby, and French Montana show off their bling, it seems they’re clamoring for every opportunity to exhibit their collections.
You’d be wrong, however, to assume that all these artists are living the lavish lifestyle just for the sake of it. The relationship between hip-hop and jewelry goes back a long way, and there is a much deeper cultural and historical significance than is publicly acknowledged.
Hip-hop jewelry is a status symbol
When you trace the history of slavery, the Jim Crow era, the civil rights period, and even today’s institutional racism, there is strong evidence that Black America has never been given the opportunity to grow and thrive freely in a way that would enable generational wealth and a comfortable level of economic security—at least certainly not to the degree that White America has had.
In 2019, black households had a median wealth of $24,100, almost eight times less than the median wealth of white households, which stood at $189,100. As for the average wealth of black vs. white households, it was $142,330 to $980,549, which means black households had only 14.5 per cent of the average wealth of white households.
The African American community has statistically been disenfranchised and marginalized in many sectors of economic significance, such as education, research funding opportunities, healthcare, labor and housing market opportunities, and the criminal justice system, amongst other areas. Many successful black people who grew up in and around these circumstances and have attained success talk about “making it out the mud,” which is a reference to the fact that it’s almost always through undue struggle that they attain success.
In hip-hop culture, which has historically been a vehicle for African Americans to communicate their pain and struggles, when someone from this community becomes successful, they find a way to show it and express it via the same medium.
Alex Arabov, the owner of the urban-focused custom jewelry designer brand, Vobara, says, “The bling is a status symbol for most emcees. It’s a symbol of success for a people who weren’t always afforded a level playing field to build generational wealth. They are trying to communicate that despite the lack of opportunities and general wealth to fall back on, and even with the opposition they faced in their bid to make something of themselves, they have succeeded. The jewelry is an identity card to show and prove that what they’re saying is real and true. But it’s also, in a sense, them giving the middle finger to the oppressive systems that tried to keep them down.”
Vobara has made custom pieces of jewelry for heavy hitters like Rick Ross, Quavo from Migos, Kodak Black, Soulja Boy, Future, Rich the Kid, and many more. They also make jewelry for anyone, especially in the urban community, who would like some quality custom-made diamond or gold statement pieces at an affordable price. Arabov was inspired to go into the jewelry business by his father and uncle, Jacob the Jeweler, who founded the reputable watchmaker, Jacob & Co. He believes that many rappers and artists in hip-hop are just misunderstood as wasteful because many can’t relate to their experiences and struggles.
Making hip-hop jewelry statement pieces is a source of revenue for many black creatives
“Yes, wearing jewelry is a way for people to show they’ve made it, but it’s much more than that. The urban community has many who have learned the jewelry trade to perfection, and so when artists come for a piece of jewelry to be made, it’s an opportunity for these designers to use their talent to make something unique and outstanding,” remarks Arabov.
In the same way, you have Bvlgari, Tiffany & Co.
Urban jewelry design is a well-established niche in the jewelry industry. Designers in this niche provide a service that many in the community desire and pay for. This relationship ensures transactions between both parties, consequently establishing a thriving industry.
Growing a jewelry collection is potentially generating an investment
Jewelry can also be an investment. When an artist goes to get an outlandish-looking piece of jewelry made, sometimes it’s not just for show; it’s also in the hopes that it’ll generate value. Many factors contribute to this: the quality of the design, the designer’s reputation, the artist that owns it, and how much of it is available. These can all work towards growing the value of any piece of jewelry. This is true mostly with luxury watches.
This is why many hip-hop stars can drop a high amount of zeros on a limited-edition watch from high-end brands like Rolex or Patek Philippe to Hublot and Cartier. Drake once reportedly dropped $620,000 on a Jacob & Co. watch, while Beyoncé gifted Jay-Z a $5 million 18k white gold Hublot watch.
These watches usually appreciate as time passes, and their resale value is often worth the trouble. You don’t need to observe for too long to realize just how many emcees and hip-hop record executives are doing this. In the “Ice Cold” documentary, the CEO of Quality Control Music, Pierre “P” Thomas, talked about deliberately growing his luxury watch collection as a way to leave something behind for his kids and grandkids.
How ‘bling culture’ is creating a huge industry
Hip Hop’s obsession with bling has had an immense impact on urban culture as a whole and this impact cuts across racial and economic divides. More and more young people are beginning to use jewelry, from braces to chains and watches as a way to stand out, define their personalities, or create a unique brand.
According to Arabov, “We have worked closely with a lot of big hitters in the entertainment industry, but there is an even greater market opening up away from hip-hop. This is why Vobara ensures to treat every customer the same, A-lister or random guy.”
“Whether we are catering to returning customers like celebrities or influencers who come in to buy pendants or watches every week, or a first-time customer who comes in to buy one pendant, we endeavor to make every customer’s purchase an experience. While celebrities do have the big bucks to spend, the increased acceptance of ‘bling culture’ is bringing in a flood of new customers, who on aggregate spend are creating more profit for jewelers.”
As Arabov seeks to expand the Vobara brand and open up flagship stores, he admits that the relationship between jewelry and hip-hop can never be severed, and with promising young artists popping up every day, that bond is only going to become stronger, more so, non-artists are becoming the biggest customer base for jewelry makers all over the country.