Change is everywhere. From food, fashion, commerce, transportation, medicine and housing, virtually every facet of life has evolved since our days as primitive, hunter-gatherers. Everything that is, except jewelry. From 75,000 year old jewelry discovered in Africa to Floyd Mayweather’s $10 million diamond chains, jewelry has primarily symbolized one thing since the very beginning: status.

African King Mansa Musa, the richest person in human history who ruled much of West Africa from 1312 to 1337, loved to show off his wealth through jewelry. As Rudolph Ware, a professor of history at the University of Michigan, explains, “there are pictures of him holding a scepter of gold on a throne of gold holding a cup of gold with a golden crown on his head. Imagine as much gold as you think a human being could possess and double it. That’s what all the accounts are trying to communicate.”

Jewelry has never been as ubiquitous as it is now in today’s modern-day hip-hop culture. The most influential rap stars of our time—from coast to coast to across borders and oceans—wear jewelry. In fact, some jewelers are almost as famous as their superstar clients, with social media follower counts numbering in the hundreds of thousands in some cases.

We all remember the original elements of hip-hop: DJing, emceeing, street art and dance. I’d like to add four more: Pt, Ag, Au and C. For those of you who slept through science class, that’s platinum, gold, silver and carbon, which when compressed, forms a diamond. These four elements have been synonymous with rap since the very beginning as well.

The Formative Years of Hip-Hop Jewelry: 1979-1989

Ah, the 1970’s. Richard Nixon. Elvis Presley. The Vietnam War. Cocaine. Disco. What’s not to love? It’s also the decade in which hip-hop was born. The genre was first popularized by DJ Kool Herc in the early 1970s at his famous block parties. Evidence of ice followed shortly thereafter, with Kurtis Blow donning several gold chains on the cover of his self-titled debut album. It was only natural that Blow, the emcee behind the first certified gold hip-hop record ever, wore gold on his album cover. Over the next three decades, future emcees would follow in his footsteps, acquiring jewelry to mark the milestones reached throughout their careers.

By the mid to late 1980s hip-hop evolved. It began to grow from its disco-inspired, block party roots to a multi-dimensional art form ready to be taken seriously by America’s mainstream. Artists like Eric B. & Rakim pioneered a much more conscious, lyrically-driven listening experience while Biz Markie and Slick Rick blossomed by going into more of a storytelling route with their flows. Others, like LL Cool J and Run-DMC, began to achieve massive success with catchy production and high-energy delivery.

With bigger budgets and bolder rhymes, came bigger, bolder shines. At the height of Run-DMC’s, well, run, adidas gifted the trio solid gold Classics sneakers. Of course they achieved even greater infamy with their dookie rope chains, but don’t think that’s where the buck stopped. They’d routinely rock some of the sickest gold watches, rings and pendants of the era.

LL Cool J is another example of gold rope chain excellence. He was also one of the first to popularize four-finger rings, but it was Biz Markie who took it a step further, flooding his with diamonds. In 1987, when Eric B. and Rakim released Paid In Full, their album cover was literally covered in money. Ben Baller, of IF & Co. Jewelry, estimated the value of those chains at $100,000… each! Slick Rick, an eyepatch icon without peer, got full-on monarchal with his accessories that ranged from crowns and sceptres to wearing a dozen solid gold chains all at once. Rick was not alone in his regal aesthetic; on the cover of his 1988 debut album Long Live The Kane, Big Daddy Kane bears a striking resemblance to the African rulers from centuries long past, creating pillars of wearable gold.

And with so many competing visions of opulence, you can be sure that it instilled a competitive air amongst these artists. Mr. Cee, Big Daddy Kane’s longtime DJ, would explain it in greater detail to Minya Oh in her 2005 book Bling Bling: “Between Kane, Slick Rick, and Biz Markie- just those three, I can remember if one person got something, the next person got something else. They loved to compete. All three of them used to play the Apollo at the same time, so if they had a big show like that, it would be the perfect place to debut new pieces.”

Moving Forward: 1990-2000

By the early ’90s, hip-hop was organized into an industry all its own. Solo artists transitioned to executives and informal street crews banded together to form companies. In other words, the genre had become commercialized, and jewelry became part of the marketing. Pendants moved on from being flourishes of status and started to become billboards to advertise competing labels of the era. No better example of this type of piece of can be found than the enormous accoutrement worn by Notorious B.I.G.

Designed by Tito the Jeweler, Biggie’s massive Jesus piece was the last chain he ever wore. It would turn into a good luck charm of sorts, worn by both Jay-Z and Lil Kim during the creation of their iconic albums of that era. Since his passing, the Jesus piece has arguably become the most popular pendant of all time. Jay and crew were familiar with the late Tito the Jeweler as well, as Jay would rap about taking his “fritos to Tito’s” on Reasonable Doubt’s “Politics As Usual.”

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Before long, hip-hop was the top-selling genre by the numbers. It was around this time that Jay-Z upped the stakes by introducing high-priced platinum pieces to the masses. While $10,000 was a lot for a chain back in the ’80s, Roc-A-Fella members—namely Dame Dash and Biggs Burke—would drop $200,000 each with Jacob in the mid-90’s.

This level of spending marked a period of transition in rap. As Jay-Z, Diddy, Dr. Dre and others would later demonstrate, it was a medium capable of generating wealth for its participants. And how better to show it than by placing it around your neck?

to be continued in part 2

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