First look: The blinged-out hip-hop jewelry exhibit at AMNH (2024)

First look: The blinged-out hip-hop jewelry exhibit at AMNH (1)

You've seen them on stage and in pictures, but these pieces look even more dazzling up-close.

Written by

Rossilynne Skena Culgan

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In theresonant words of A$AP Rocky, "The nails, the kilts, the pretty-boy swag, the pearls—I think it's just being comfortable. I just express myself with fashion, and what's fly is fly." What's fly is "Ice Cold: An Exhibition of Hip-Hop Jewelry" at the American Museum of Natural History, a new show that features dozens ofincredible necklaces, rings, watches, chains, and more worn by some of the biggest names in music.

A few highlights include T-Pain's Big Ass Chain necklace, Ghostface Killah's eagle arm band, Nicki Minaj's Barbie pendant,Beyoncé's nail rings, Cardi B's nipple covers, and Slick Rick's crown. While the pieces are a sight to behold up-close, the exhibit carries a much deeper meaning, especially as New York City wraps up its 50 years of hip-hop celebrations.

RECOMMENDED:NYC celebrates 50 years of hip-hop, a Bronx-born phenomenon that took over the world

Since the early days of the genre in the 1970s, artists have used jewelry to express themselves and form culture. Even hip-hop pioneerDJ Kool Herc wore a leather medallion on which he drew a self-portrait and his tag. Othergroundbreakingartists like Slick Rickexplored symbols of majesty with glimmering crowns and opulent chains. Soon, Flavor Flav created his own unique look with his oversize clock pendant; he now has a collection of more than 100, and you can see one of them in the show.

In the '80s and '90s, hip-hop artists and fans shopped at neighborhood stores in the Queens Colosseum Mall and Brooklyn's Albee Square Mall. These shops stockedgold chains, nameplates, hoop earrings, and grills long before luxury brands embraced these trends. The exhibition pays tribute to these stores and the jewelers who run them. The Diamond District's famed Jacob the Jeweler (Jacob Arabo) is pictured in the exhibition with a lyric from 50 Cent's "Get In My Car" that goes: "Take her to the Diamond District, introduce her to Jacob. Tell her if she like me, she should keep me icey."

First look: The blinged-out hip-hop jewelry exhibit at AMNH (3)

Staten Island's own Wu-Tang Clan was well known for their innovative jewelry. The collective's Ghostface Killah even wore one of hip-hop's most renowned pieces: a shiny gold arm piece with an eagle perched on top and diamonds glittering along each edge. It's incredible to witness in person.

As the genre evolved into a world-wide cultural phenomenon, artists experimented with even more extravagant pieces and customizations like A$AP Rocky's multi-color diamond nameplate necklace, Pharrell Williams' ruby-and-diamond grill set, and Takeoff's "iced out" Audemars Piguet watch. There's Drake's The Crown Jewel of Toronto pendant worn during the "8am in Charlotte" video; Tyler, The Creator's bellhop necklace with 23,000 hand-set stones;and T-Pain's Big Ass Chain necklace weighing more than 10 pounds with nearly 200 carats of diamonds.

First look: The blinged-out hip-hop jewelry exhibit at AMNH (4)

While some hip-hop histories tend to forget women in hip-hop, guest curator Vikki Tobak made sure that didn't happen in "Ice Cold." As the author of the bookIce Cold: A Hip-Hop Jewelry History,Tobak is steeped in hip-hop culture and ensured women's contributions were featured clearly. A few must-see pieces include Eve's Ruff Ryders necklace, Beyoncé's nail rings for the "Sweet Dreams" music video, Erykah Badu's grill set, Cardi B's nipple covers worn in the "WAP" music video, and Nicki Minaj's pink-and-diamond Barbie pendant.

A quote from Minajsits next to her 54-carat necklace: "I always promote the girlsto have their own stuff, be go-getters. Don't depend on a man for anything [and go] to school."

When you come from nothing, if youhave the opportunity to buy yourself something incredible, you will.

Though the exhibitionserves as a love letter to New York hip-hop, curators also shined a light on southern hip-hop'sdistinctive spin on jewelry. Kevin "Coach K" Lee, co-founder of the Atlanta-based Quality Control Music, is an expert on the subject, as his agency pioneered the careers of Migos, Lil Baby, City Girls, and Lil Yachty. He served as a co-curator for "Ice Cold" and is quoted in the exhibit as saying, "[In] the South, where slavery was born in this country, we went from steel chains to diamond chains. There's definitely some symbolism there. When you come from nothing, if youhave the opportunity to buy yourself something incredible, you will."

First look: The blinged-out hip-hop jewelry exhibit at AMNH (5)

Curators strived to tell a complete story, from the beginning of hip-hop to today, celebrating iconic musicians and iconic pieces, Tobak explained. She and her fellow curators faced two major challenges: First, some artistshesitatedto part with their beloved jewelry to loan itout for the show. Second, somepieces have been lost to time, like Cam'ron's spinner globe, which has been melted down.

They are artifacts, pieces of history, just as important any geode.

"We all now are sitting here understanding that they are artifacts, pieces of history, just as important any geode," she said, explaining why it's important to preserve these pieces. "Hip-hop was nottreated so great at certain points."

In addition to Lee, fellow curators and advisors includeKaram Gill, of the documentary series ICE COLD; Slick Rick; Roc Nation executive LENNY S.; history professor Tanisha Ford; jewelry designer Alex Moss; and more.

First look: The blinged-out hip-hop jewelry exhibit at AMNH (6)

The museum's president, Sean Decatur, says the exhibit is a perfect fit at the American Museum of Natural History, though some have told him the exhibit feels like an usual match.

"It is absolutely connected to both the mission of the museum and the history ofour work here," he said at an opening event for the exhibit. "Gems and jewelry have been part of the museum's collection and exhibition program really from the very beginning, so for about 150 years now."

Plus, he said, gems are both a product of the natural world and a way to show self expression and cultural identity through jewelry.

Take her to the Diamond District, introduce her to Jacob. Tell her if she like me, she should keep me icey.

"To bring that into our contemporary times, ways in which hip hop artists have worked withjewelersin order to create beautiful pieces that convey both individual identity but also, when taken as a whole, give a sense of the broader cultural impact, cultural sweep, and historical significance of hip-hop is incredibly exciting and fits in with the work of the museum here in many ways," he added.

Inside this jewel box exhibit, hip-hop music plays in the background, of course. Here's the playlist.

See"Ice Cold: An Exhibition of Hip-Hop Jewelry" now at the American Museum of Natural History with general admission, which is pay-as-you-wish for New Yorkers.Find it in the Mignone Halls of Gems and Minerals on the first floor.

  • Rossilynne Skena Culgan
    Things to Do Editor

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