When Marilyn Monroe sang about diamonds in the 1953 film, “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” the platinum-haired bombshell name-checked the likes of Tiffany, Cartier, and Harry Winston. Today, one would add the Beyoncé-approved jewelry designers Lorraine Schwartz and Jacob the Jeweler to that legendary lineup. For those unfamiliar with these contemporary purveyors, their context in the lyrics of Bey’s “Upgrade U” should make their trades resoundingly clear: two status-defining jewelers whose glamorous wares are anything—and everything—but modest. Both, along with Ben Baller (and yes, still-classic institutions like Harry Winston and Cartier), have become the go-to outfitters for today’s hip hop celebrities.
From the lyrics to the fashion (from bling pendants to diamond-crusted grills for teeth, and everything in between), the past several decades have seen diamonds emerge as an integral aspect of music and hip hop culture. And these days, the more expressive the baubles, the better. It’s not just the Rihannas and Beyoncés of the world, either. Of course, as hip hop’s once male-dominated landscape broadened, more female rappers and singers arrived on the scene displaying more feminine, blinged-out looks, however the history and prevalence of diamonds in the hip hop community extends well beyond gender lines.
In the beginning, it was all about the gold. Take Kurtis Blow’s 1980 self-titled album cover, for example, which features a shirtless Blow waist-up, wearing five gold chains. The album, often regarded as one of the first hip hop records to gain notable recognition, went on to achieve gold-status in sales, and Blow’s style was widely imitated by other emerging artists. As much as musical recognition and actual sales drove an artist’s prestige, gold chains became status markers of their own: the bigger the chain, the heavier the weight and value (presumably), and thus, more notoriety. In a somewhat circular fashion, a key aspect of a hip hop artist’s success often hinged on that status, and one’s status only heightened with the money-making nature of success.
Alas, as goofily-outlandish as some become in their exaggerated sizes, gold chains could only get so enormous before their weight posed a hindrance to its wearer. Pendants in the shape of big-money icons like dollar signs and Mercedes hood ornaments became a popular form of adornment instead. As those pieces became more ornate in size and detail, diamonds emerged as the obvious choice of embellishment. Why have anything less than the best, especially across a musical and cultural landscape that very much delivers on one-upmanship? Throughout the 90s, more female artists such as Lil’ Kim, Mary J. Blige, and Eve came out blazing their ice, too. More visible, wearable, and very often valuable than cars, mansions, and other signifiers of one’s rich lifestyle, diamonds became the ultimate sign of celebrity and stature. Sports car models and fashion trends may become outdated and fade, but as the famous slogan goes: diamonds are forever.
As the desire for more bespoke, one-of-a-kind pieces grew, jewelers such as Ben Baller (and his company IF & CO.), and Jacob Arabo, more popularly known as “Jacob the Jeweler,” became minor celebrities in their own right for their ‘hip haute couture,’ baubles. Colorful, gemstone-encrusted grills, personalized diamond-covered slogans and logo images, for example, are continual images on IF & Co.’s Instagram feed, while Arabo’s flashy, five-time-zone watches, some selling for upwards of $1 million dollars, bear an instant recognizability. And with over 200 references in various artists’ tracks throughout the years, Jacob the Jeweler has become an especially rarefied figure in the hip hop universe.
Today’s generation of hip hop artists—today’s generation of celebrities in general—have more control of their public images than ever, thanks to social media. And for many of the most notable and followed ones, diamonds continue to be top indicators of fame, fortune, aspirations, and timelessness. Whether it’s Cardi B rapping about million dollar deals and rocks in her watches, Rihanna’s more figurative comparisons of love to the stars and cosmos (aka “diamonds in the sky”), or A$AP Rocky’s “mouthful of diamonds,” the alluring siren call of diamonds has only gotten louder.
In this time of social distancing and sheltering at home, we created a playlist that’s heavy on the rocks and upbeat for the spirit.
Megan Thee Stallion & Normani – “Diamonds”
Drake & Future – “Diamonds Dancing”
Rihanna – “Diamonds”
Cardi B – “I Like It”
Gucci Mane ft. Kodak Black – “Big Boy Diamond”
Ariana Grande – “7 rings”
2 Chainz ft. Ty Dolla Sign – “Girl’s Best Frien8
David Bowie – “Diamond Dogs”
Shine on You Crazy Diamond – “Pink Floyd”
Ribbons and Bows – “Kacey Musgraves”
Elton John – “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”