Home Arts & Culture ‘Ice Cold: An Exhibition of Hip-Hop Jewelry’: review

‘Ice Cold: An Exhibition of Hip-Hop Jewelry’: review

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Hip-hop’s official 50th birthday was 11 August 2023. And while there’s still time to celebrate that milestone, this party is not due to end any time soon. ‘Ice Cold: An Exhibition of Hip-Hop Jewelry’ runs at the American Museum of Natural History in New York until January 2025, and so there’s ample time to join in. Among the oversized gold chains and diamond-studded pendants is a glitter ball of legendary names – The Notorious B.I.G., Jam Master Jay and Erykah Badu among them. But ‘Ice Cold’ aims higher, going way beyond the brilliantly audacious designs to illuminate hip-hop jewellery as part of a multi-layered trajectory of style, politics and sociocultural trends.

Following the success of Run-DMC’s 1986 hit ‘My Adidas’, Adidas struck a first-of-its-kind endorsement deal with the group, presenting each member with a 14ct gold sneaker-charm pendant. This version is by jeweller Erwin Hesz (‘Jewelry by Hesz’, Los Angeles)

(Image credit: Alvaro Keding/© AMNH)

As Sean Decatur, president of the museum tells me from New York: ‘The exhibition is not purely an academic or voyeuristic exercise, but one in which voices of the artists come through very clearly. And, given hip-hop’s roots in New York City, the chance to tell a cultural story that resonates with this city in this very strong way was very exciting for us.’

While the ‘Ice Cold’ curatorial team included hip-hop great Slick Rick, industry label executives, film-makers, jewellers and academics, it is guest curator, the journalist and author Vikki Tobak, and her meticulous research for Ice Cold: A Hip-Hop Jewelry History, who inspired the show. A YouTube Originals docu-series, ICE COLD, by Karam Gill, was also created.

Coloured gems are a recurring motif in contemporay hip-hop jewels: 14ct-gold, sapphire, ruby, diamond and enamel Lego pendant, designed for A$AP Rocky by Alex Moss X Pavē, 2022; diamond, sapphire and various-colour gemstones Tyler the Creator Bellhop necklace with operable briefcase, by Alex Moss, 2021

(Image credit: © Alvaro Keding/ AMNH)

‘I’ve been in love with hip-hop since the early 1990s when my first job was working at a small record label with early artists including Jay Z and Gang Starr,’ Tobak explains. ‘So, I fell in love with the music even before I knew it would be a profession.’ Having worked on the management side, her interest in hip-hop jewellery evolved naturally. ‘I think when you have a love of hip-hop to the level I did, you understand the many layers beyond the music: the style, the politics, the socio-cultural elements. So, I always recognised the fashion and jewellery as part of hip-hop’s evolving identity – a culture within the culture, if you will.’

‘Ice Cold: An Exhibition of Hip-Hop Jewelry’

ICE COLD | Official Trailer – YouTube
ICE COLD | Official Trailer - YouTube

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‘Ice Cold’ crosses five decades of jewellery design in hip-hop, from the gigantic 9ct, hollow-gold chains that set rappers apart in the late 1970s through Flavor Flav’s comic 1980s clock pendant that prompted rap’s entry into the mainstream, to Roxanne Shanté’s ‘R’ signet ring, signifying her role as the only female rapper of Juice Crew collective.

The story weaves through 1990s diamond-set record-label pendants, demure opal and white gold grillz for Erykah Badu, and Ghostface Killah’s gobsmackingly gargantuan five-pound Eagle armband. The current mood, meanwhile, is represented by Nicki Minaj’s Barbie necklace and Tyler the Creator’s CAD-drawn character pendants, signaling a return of the pop humour and outsize forms of the early designs.

From left: Erykah Badu sports gold eagle-design grillz; Slick Rick costume jewellery crown by Tanya Jones of Lucki Crowns. Custom-made eyepatch designed for Slick Rick by Jacob & Co in 2012, with refinements by Avianne & Co in 2023, with platinum and diamonds

(Image credit: Erykah Badu ©Tony Krash; Crown and patch Alvaro Keding/© AMNH)

‘People always think of hip-hop as remixing and reinventing things, and that goes across all aspects of it, including the jewellers,’ says Tobak. ‘Also, entrepreneurialism is very much in the spirit of hip-hop and, at the beginning, there weren’t any fashion houses who wanted to dress hip-hop creatives nor jewellers catering to the hip-hop crowd. And, though not necessarily by choice, a lot of the early jewellers, immigrants from the former Soviet Union, parts of Asia, the Caribbean, were in tune with hip-hop’s DIY spirit. The “Let’s go for it, right? Let’s be bigger, let’s be bolder with our jewelry, let’s show the world who we are” design drive is, in part, an extension of that entrepreneurialism.’ Today, as big brands understand its marketing power, Tobak believes: ‘you might say hip-hop, and the luxury world are lockstep’.

Hip-hop star Ghostface Killah wearing his five-pound gold Eagle armband

(Image credit: © Atsuko Tanaka, courtesy AMNH)

So how did ‘Ice Cold’ end up on show in the American Museum of Natural History? ‘We’ve had a gems collection at the museum since the late 19th century,’ Decatur explains. ‘But we have always used objects from the natural world to highlight their meaning in the context of human culture, and jewellery design is part of that.’ The notion of Ice Cold being an opportunity to do something particularly special, then, he says, was clear to everyone involved: ‘When some of the artists who’ve loaned works for the exhibition saw it for the first time, it was really moving to hear their stories of having come to the Natural History Museum as kids,’ says the clearly delighted museum president.

Roxanne Shanté, a member of the influential hip-hop collective Juice Crew as a teen in the 1980s, is the only female rapper to have been given a Juice Crew ring, which boasts a diamond- encrusted ‘R’

(Image credit: Alvaro Keding/© AMNH)

‘Ice Cold: An Exhibition of Hip-Hop Jewellery’ at the American Museum of Natural History runs until 5 January 2025, amnh.org; Ice-Cold: A Hip-Hop Jewelry History, by Vikki Tobak is published by Taschen, £80

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