How Bling Became the Thing

It doesn’t have the same marketing muscle behind it as “A Diamond Is Forever” or “Past, Present, Future,” and yet no term has been more closely associated with diamonds in the last few years than “bling-bling.”

It’s fascinating—and perhaps telling—that for all the marketing initiatives undertaken in the last few years to spur demand for diamonds, the most high-profile diamond trend in decades grew organically with little industry prodding. For the last 10 years, hip-hop artists have not only worn diamonds but also embraced them as part of their lifestyle, which has prompted an entire subculture to embrace diamonds as well.

It’s hard to quantify how many sales the trend has led to. The people at the Diamond Trading Company account at ad agency JWT declined to talk to JCK about the bling-bling phenomenon. Yet there is no question it has delivered substantial incremental sales to the market, revitalized the long-stagnant “diamonds for men” category, and played a large role in fueling the current diamond watch trend.

By all indications the trend continues to grow, as love of bling spreads from rappers to the fans who idolize and want to emulate them. Rap, despite its black roots, crosses racial lines. According to one report, white consumers buy three-quarters of all rap albums. “When we first started, it was just the rappers and entertainers wearing diamonds,” says Jimmy Sengul of Baguette World. “But it’s become a mainstream thing. You have a 20-year-old white suburban boy who, just because he sees people on MTV wearing diamonds, wants to wear it to parties and be part of the whole thing.”

Most peg the bling phenomenon to the early 1990s. At first it was striking to see hypermacho rappers decked out in diamonds, but perhaps it shouldn’t have been. Rappers have long worn gold chains and other jewelry. Beverly Smith, fashion editor–at–large for Vibe magazine, says wearing jewelry has a long history in African-American culture.

“This is not a new phenomenon,” she says. “It has firm roots going back to the 1920s. I don’t think that anyone who is African-American was introduced to jewelry by rappers. African- Americans can look at their old photo albums and there is someone with a gold tooth, or with a gold bracelet, or all decked out.”

That’s especially true of musicians, she adds. “Back in the Jazz Age, all the musicians wore gold teeth. Look at Isaac Hayes, Barry White, the Isley Brothers, all the singers from the ’70s. Barry White loved jewelry. There’s an album cover with White draped in just the gaudiest yellow gold.”

Smith cites rapper videos as a turning point. “It really made it more in your face,” she says. “It allowed a lot more people to feel like it was accessible.”

As rappers’ fame and money increased, so did their taste in jewelry. Soon came silver, platinum—and diamonds. Diamonds found their way not only to rappers’ necks but also their songs (see sidebar, p. 142). It was a logical evolution—yet also new and striking.

“The rappers saw themselves as rebels and wanted to have a fashion they could call their own,” notes Jim Haag, managing director of Jacob and Co. (aka Jacob the Jeweler), which has built its business on the bling phenomenon.

Diamond jewelry fit the bill, and it didn’t hurt that it looked great on stage. “When you are on the stage and the light’s hitting you, diamonds all sparkle, and they look fantastic,” says Jacob Arabo, the head of Jacob and Co. “It’s all about image. It’s not just to show off. It’s something that people remember you by. Biz Markie told me because of [a ring I made him], he sold 3 million more records.”

Soon the trend had its own slang: bling-bling, a clever bit of onomatopoeia that refers to the sparkle of light when it hits a diamond. Some say it was originally a Jamaican term, and others credit the Cash Money Millionaires or rapper B.G. and his song “Bling Bling.” Today, the term is so well known it has an entry in the Oxford English Dictionary. But overuse threatens its street cred. “Once Regis Philbin or Katie Couric starts saying bling-bling, that means it’s done,” Smith says.

But while the term may be played out, the trend still has considerable life. Some worried it would take a hit when hip-hop artist Kanye West began rapping about “Diamonds From Sierra Leone,” but rappers—including West—have continued to deck themselves out in diamonds. It helps that fashions in this market constantly change. “Every time the artists make a video or a new album, they want something different,” Arabo says.

Taste is also evolving: The emphasis now is not only on “big” looks but also on better quality. “The bling-bling phenomenon is now downplayed,” says Smith. “The pieces today are more sophisticated; they’re quieter. Now people say, ‘I don’t need 24 chains. I can get one really amazing piece that costs just as much.’ It doesn’t have to be rows upon rows of diamonds. It can be one really high-quality diamond.”

Consumers are also more knowledgeable. “At first a lot of the rappers didn’t know about diamonds, they just bought stuff,” Smith says. “But they are becoming more educated, they know about the ‘four Cs.’ If you speak to rappers that have been in the game for a while, they can talk to you about diamonds.”

But the diamond jewelry industry is a conservative one, and some think many jewelers have been slow to take advantage of this trend. “This is a huge market, but you only have a few people capitalizing on it,” says Sengul. “In every town there are entertainers, people on football and basketball teams, and wannabes. There is a lot more business to be done.”

Sengul notes that in many ways it’s an ideal market for jewelers. “You don’t get a lot of this ‘Let me come back when my fiancée sees it,’” he says. “It’s an impulse buy. If they like it, they will pick it up and go out and party with it.”

Smith adds: “The jewelry industry has not taken advantage of marketing to this culture. There are no mainstream jewelry companies out there speaking to this audience, and it’s an underserved market. Wouldn’t it be smart for people to be lending their jewelry for the Vibe Awards, which gets a huge audience?”

Instead, other retailers are filling the void. There are a number of Web sites selling “street jewelry,” including GangstaGold.com, which gets some 100,000 hits a month. And jewelry is frequently seen at urban- and youth-oriented retailers.

“You go to many stores now and you see fairly substantial jewelry for men’s departments,” says Haag.

The hip-hop generation may not be the traditional audience for diamond jewelry retailers, but it may point the way to the industry’s future. “Every American male who is under 25 years old is growing up with as much of a jewelry culture as women,” says Haag. “Think of the implications of that. If guys grow up wanting jewelry as much as women, it will double the market.”