Ice Cold: Jewelry as Political Embodiments
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I once had oysters and steak tartare with a guy from Calabasas — this was during the American upper-middle-class Euro summer season — who stacked his wrist with five Cartier love bracelets in rose gold, no diamonds, and wore a Van Cleef col- lier, the one with ten flower pendants, dangling loosely around his neck. After one Manhattan, I let my intrusive thoughts win and interrogated him as to whether he ever considered changing careers: from finance bro to gemmy lyricist — or rapper. His response: that I do not understand American culture — jewelry is culture — and that it is too difficult to elucidate further, so we should just order the Crêpes Suzette. “It can be enjoyed by both American and European taste buds,” he said. And while I thought to myself that Crêpes Suzette is French and very much differs from the fluffy, king-sized American version equipped with chocolate chips and two cups of maple syrup, I also wondered if five love bracelets and a Van Cleef collier can be considered carriers of culture.
But jewelry very much is culture. It has been for millennia — the earliest evidence of jewelry dates back 25,000 years. Yet the meaning of the Euro summer finance bro’s pieces remains debatable — apart from his being able to afford the afore- mentioned flowers and bracelets while staying in each Soho House hotel of every relevant Europe- an city (not to suggest that Soho House would have a location in an irrelevant city).
Vikki Tobak’s Ice Cold: A Hip-Hop Jewelry History (2022) investigates the way rappers over the past 40 years have used blingy visual iconography. Unlike the case of the finance bro, maximalist stacking here is taken to an extreme. The book includes such images as Nas wearing a giant golden King Tut medallion on a rope chain; Nigo wearing a diamond-encrusted dollar sign that looks like a suffocating neck holder top; Flavor Flav with gold grills engraved with his name and coating almost his entire set of teeth; and Cardi B with an eight- carat, pear-cut center diamond ring that is half the size of her thumb. With text contributions by A$AP Ferg, Slick Rick, and Pierre “P” Thomas, the book not only contextualizes jewelry’s place in hip-hop culture from an external perspective, it also en- compasses the voices of artists themselves, along with jewelry dealers and others in the field. They are united in their perception of gemstones as living objects that document and archive shared memories, experiences, and values — that function as propellers of identity.
In the foreword, Slick Rick writes: “Displaying our opulence [through jewelry] affirms the traditions and wealth of our Black culture.” His words emphasize jewels’ indivisibility from political and cultural intricacies. When Carrie from Sex and the City found out that her boyfriend bought her a gold engagement ring, she was devastated and deemed it “ghetto gold for fun,” drawing on a derogatory term for tacky costume jewelry. This label has roots not in an aversion to the sheer materiality of gold — in ancient Egypt, gold was considered to be the flesh of gods — but in racial stereotypes, as ghettos are typically not white spaces. Wearing gems that are often custom made and demanding prices in the six-to-seven-digit field — think of Jay-Z’s 11-pound Cuban gold chain, estimated at 200,000 dollars — with such exuberance as a rapper, particularly as a Black one, is a form of reappropriating and recontextualizing displaced narratives. “Hip-hop is an adornment, a political embodiment, and a blingy, shining statement of collective identity,” Tobak writes in the closing es- say of the book. By that reckoning, gemstones are the corresponding physical engravings, transcending any ostensible “tackiness” and price tags to become constitutional manifestos.
Ice Cold: A Hip-Hop Jewelry History is published by Taschen (Cologne, 2022). www.taschen.com