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73 carats and counting

In hip-hop's custom-jewelry culture, a new generation is ready to up the ante.

December 23, 2007|Camilo Smith | Times Staff Writer

He made a $450,000 pendant as big as your forearm, shaped like the state of California, and a piece of baby bling for Suri Cruise. Across town, the competition crafted an 18-carat, black-and-white diamond pendant to look like Missy Elliott's face for the rapper to wear in a video, and a 40-carat blue diamond and ruby Papa Smurf pendant for basketballer DeShawn Stevenson.

Jacob the Jeweler and Chris Aire? No. We're talking Jason of Beverly Hills and Icee Fresh -- the new purveyors of bling.

Jacob Arabo may have created the genre in the mid-'90s by bedazzling the likes of P. Diddy, Jay-Z and Notorious B.I.G., but a new generation is following in Arabo's footsteps, eager to pick up any business he may lose as a result of his legal troubles. (Arabo is awaiting sentencing in New York after pleading guilty to falsifying records and giving false statements to investigators looking into a drug ring.)

Around the country, there's King Johnny and TV Johnny Dang in Houston, and the Avianne brothers and David Bling in New York. But Jason of Beverly Hills and Icee Fresh in L.A. have the most far-reaching clientele, with connections in Hollywood and the music and sports industries. Jason has outfitted Jessica Alba and Lindsay Lohan, and Icee Fresh's work has been worn by Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie.

Like its partner, hip-hop, the custom-jewelry business has gone from a cottage industry to a full-blown culture, even traveling the same route as the music -- from the streets of New York City, to the West Coast, to the South (the only place where grills never seem to go out of style).

In hip-hop, you have your public "beefs." But in the jewelry business, the competition plays out in private, in the form of criticisms of another jeweler's craftsmanship, pricing and quality of diamonds, and the worst: whispers of cubic zirconia. It's all about who's faster (at finishing custom work), who's better (at crafting gold) and, most important, who's got the biggest pendant.

The NBA All-Star Game is the main venue for scouting clientele and gaining bragging rights. No matter what city the game is in -- the 2008 game is Feb. 17 in New Orleans -- there are plenty of shiny stones and glittering gold worn by spectators, off-court ballplayers and the jewelers themselves. It was at the game earlier this year in Las Vegas that Ben Baller, the public relations stuntman behind the Icee Fresh brand, strutted into the seats with a giant pendant in the shape of California swinging from his chain.

Icee Fresh

The jeweler behind Icee Fresh -- a.k.a. Steve Her or "Slauson Steve" because of his location at the Slauson Super Mall -- may not have an exclusive address, but he's attracting rappers such as Nas, Fat Joe and the Game, not to mention Suri Cruise. (The Cruise family stylist Jeanne Yang ordered a "Suri" pendant with diamond-encrusted lettering as a gift for her first birthday.)

On the corner of Slauson and Western avenues, the Super Mall is a maze of booths lined with clothing and jewelry. Between the latest Nike Air Jordan and Air Force 1 sneakers sits an unassuming kiosk with a vault in the back. The prized piece inside is the California pendant with a 3.23-carat diamond marking the city of Los Angeles. The land mass is covered in princess-cut canary-yellow diamonds, and the Pacific Ocean, complete with waves, in ice-blue diamonds. Nearly 2,500 stones decorate the piece, which weighs more than 3 pounds with its rope-like chain.

Her, 31, who is dressed down in a T-shirt and jeans, has a serious look about him, but he's quick to smile. He worked 10 years in his family's jewelry business before taking over when his father retired four years ago. He doesn't even like to wear jewelry.

He says much of his custom work, like L.A. fashion and music, is inspired by gang culture. "If you're from L.A., you're from somewhere," he says, referring to customers' affiliations with their " 'hoods." Various diamond-studded number pendants and gold sports-team emblems acknowledge affiliation to certain sets or gangs.

Although most custom jewelry exists outside of the fashion realm, Icee Fresh has taken a stab at being more fashion relevant by jumping on the Japanese craze of Casio G-Shock watches. (The G-Shock as fashion statement began hitting magazine covers this year when Kanye West sported one that was a collaborative piece by Bathing Ape designer Nigo.) Icee Fresh has added gold and diamond encasements for the faces. The watches start at $10,000 and go as high as $100,000. "We've sold about a dozen so far this year," Her says.

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