We have reached the point in the history of hip-hop culture where coffee table books began to be devoted to certain aspects of it, a sure sign of cultural maturation. This maturation is precisely what Taschen highlights with Ice Cold: a history of hip-hop jewelry, a new 195-page book dedicated to charting the progress of hip-hop and its associated jewelry. The book is packed with beautiful photography and text from people like A$AP Ferg and Slick Rick, all lovingly compiled by editor Vikki Tobak, who tracks jewelry development by decade. Below is an excerpt from his introduction:
“Black cool and the beginnings of what would become hip-hop culture was a force. And, while along the way, many in the mainstream could not reconcile a young black man or woman wearing jewelry to the same level as Liz Taylor or Liberace without undue scrutiny, the impact of hip- hop would have on American notions of status, competition, power, materialism and wealth is immeasurable. In many ways, hip-hop jewelry has come full circle, serving as a source of creativity and strength as modern issues of sustainability, equity, and conscious adornment come to light. As hip-hop has gone global and diversified, the jewelry industry is also counting on what this means for the world of hip-hop bling, a broader view of what hip-hop stands for. Designers from diverse communities and backgrounds are increasingly recognized for their superb artistic work. Jewelry for modern royalty? The good life by any means necessary? As hip-hop came into power, the history of hip-hop jewelry was being written.
For many, the definition of jewelry has changed dramatically over the years, moving from a product that discreetly displays inherited wealth to the most garish forms of display we know today. But jewelry and its industry have often been synonymous with society’s underdogs, a means that can be used to break into the big time based solely on instinct, talent or luck – much like the industry music itself. A key location for this aspect of the jewelry trade has been 47th Street in Midtown Manhattan, otherwise known as the Diamond District. On the one-block strip, diamond hustlers walk the sidewalk and attempt to usher passers-by into small shops where hundreds of vendors peddle their wares from small wooden kiosks. It was this strip that launched the career of Jacob the Jeweler and where, in decades past, Notorious BIG and Ye went to buy their first bling.
But jewelry has also had a specific place in African culture for thousands of years. As the richest continent in natural resources, cultures like the Ashanti and Tuareg used rings and necklaces as status for wealth and trade, while other empires built temples out of precious metals. Tobak connects images like this to contemporary ancestors of black jewelry culture, such as Malcolm X and Sammy Davis, Jr. deliberately photographed wearing expensive watches and rings in the 1960s, or Bob Marley showing off a ring that was his own. was offered by Haile Salesse I on an album cover. And while the connection between Malcolm X and A$AP Ferg might not be clear at first glance, it’s a real story that Tobak brings to life.
Whole lines can be traced through a diamond. From ancient status symbols that represented empires, to blood diamonds that single-handedly represented centuries of blatant oppression, diamonds and the jewelry they are transformed into represent much more than bling, status and wealth. And for many people, performers and otherwise, it continues to be a form of identification and power, especially for a minority that is often swept under the rug and silenced in this country. But the publication of ice cold is a step towards breaking this silence and emboldening this lineage to the cultures that inherit it today.