Is that him?” asked one major sightholder during the annual GIA gala dinner in Basel. “Can you introduce me?” queried another. “I really need to talk to him. Can you ask him if he has a few minutes?” interjected another. I felt like I was the guardian at the Holy Gates, either that or the agent of the night’s Oscar winner. It was though my date for the night everyone was eyeing. Hollywood christened him Mr. Iceman, Rolling Stone magazine titled him the Emperor of Ice, Vegas magazine preferred the title King of Bling, or as his name tag stated he’s even sometimes called Chris Aire.
I first met Aire when he was walking down a catwalk with Naomi Campbell hanging off his arm. The supermodel was practically naked, bar a pair of hot pants. The rest of her was dripping in diamonds including a $10 million diamond halter top that left little to the imagination. Aire had a big grin on his face, who wouldn’t though in his position. He’d just pulled off the jewelry coup of the year, the paparazzi were going wild, one of the world’s top models was dripping in his products and Time Warner CEO Richard Parsons was on his feet in a standing ovation. It was the final of Aire’s bling-fest held during New York’s fashion week. A show that was outrageously spectacular and for what can be a somewhat sedate industry, a show that was outrageously, spectacularly revolutionary. My first thought though, rather ungraciously, was that Naomi Campbell could probably eat him for breakfast.
That night some of the NBA’s finest had turned on the bling in an ode to Aire. Strutting down the catwalk, Antwon Jamison, Damon Stoudamire, Elton Brand and Vince Carter showed their friend’s jewels to a drooling audience. It was a night of spot the celeb, a game in which I was losing miserably. Justin Timberlake had stood scowling near the champagne fountains. The Williams sisters were somewhat easier to spot considering they towered over most gathered in the cavernous hall, but I was down nil to twenty. An unfair field considering my opponent was a writer for Rolling Stone which was about to publish a feature-length article on Aire, ‘The Emperor of Ice’. Even the appearance of Nelly didn’t help matters much – it was now 21 to nil. Thankfully the game came to a forced conclusion as the lights dimmed and the show began. Except it didn’t begin, it exploded. When Wyclef Jean plays an acoustic Star Spangled Banner on a diamond encrusted guitar, you sort of realize that this isn’t going to be a simple parade of models bedecked in diamond jewelry. When male super-model Tyson Beckord shows off his well-oiled pecs glistening with diamonds, red gold dog-tags and tri-tags. When NBA and NFL starting players do the catwalk hustle you can bet this isn’t going to be a parade of generic diamond jewelry.
As Nelly closed the show belting out his hit of the moment, Aire didn’t seem to notice “it was getting hot in there”. Dressed in a simple, white cashmere suit he walked the A-list audience thanking each celeb (and non-celeb) for coming. “Hi,” he said on his approach, “I’m Chris Aire, thank you so much for coming tonight.” I sort of mumbled something like it was my pleasure. He then flashed his trademark ice-white grin and moved on followed by an entourage of followers that grew by the moment. A month later I caught up with him again in New York during an industry get-together. This time the white cashmere had been replaced in favor of a hip pinstripe suit. He looked more like a banker than a jeweler to over 80 percent of the NBA, a fair portion of NFL players and Hollywood glitterati like Halle Berry, Will Smith and Bruce Willis. Re-introductions were made then Aire, obviously a mind-reader in his non-existent spare time, suggested we escape (me, him, a bodyguard, an assistant and a mutual friend) for a drink. “Did you enjoy the show last month?” he asked. “What did you think? Was it OK?” Was he serious? The man had just pulled off probably the greatest one-man jewelry show and was seriously concerned that I thought it wasn’t ‘OK’. That’s probably the most outstanding trait about Aire, he’s as humble is as humble does.
Jumping forward to the GIA dinner, he seemed somewhat bemused by the attention he was attracting in the Swiss castle. “How do all these people know who I am?” he asked. While he may be one of the most outstanding names in celebrity jewelry and certainly the reigning king of rap ice, inside the industry Aire is still in the shade. From the start he bucked the trend, no collaboration with any major diamond house, the celebrity fan-based he built by the sheer power of his designs, in fact the jeweler is probably better known on the red-carpet or center-court than he is in the aisles of a industry show. Although he was born in St. Thomas, shortly after his birth Aire’s family moved to the West African country of Benin. He grew-up enjoying the privileges of the affluent – his father ran a petroleum company and Aire was expected to study in Oxford after completing high school. He though, had different ideas. “I wanted to be a singer,” he grins. Like so many others, Aire dreamt of the fortunes and fame proffered by LA. Rebelling against his father’s wishes, Aire eschewed the dreamy spires of Oxford and fled instead to the bright lights of California’s Promised Land. But, like so many others he had a rude awakening. He found himself just one of millions searching for that elusive break and ensuing fame that he had dreamt of in Africa. “I was flipping burgers at night, studying at Cal State during the day and sleeping in my car or on a friends’ sofa. It was hard.” He was telling me this story as we were waiting for a limousine to pick us up outside the castle. The balmy evening had suddenly turned into a chilly Swiss night and Aire, ever the gentlemen insisted I wear his coat. There he was freezing on a sidewalk gallantly handing over his ultra-expensive overcoat (I checked the label – call it journalistic curiosity). How in ten years did he go from flipping burgers and sleeping in his car to owning a multi-million dollar jewelry company and being courted by Hollywood’s elite?
After realizing that he wanted the music business far more than the music business wanted him, he came to the conclusion that no matter what, he would find success. He would make it no matter why, where or how. He decided to attend a self-help seminar but was so broke, he had to borrow the enrolment fee from a friend. At the seminar he befriended the son of an LA jeweler, P-5 Jewelers, and after finishing the seminar started working at the company, helping out in the office. “I was sketching designs, but no-one would even look at them. They just weren’t mainstream enough, but no matter what anyone said, I knew I had something.” After completing a GIA course he started to design rings for the bridal market, but this wasn’t where he wanted to be. Aire decided it was time to go it alone.
In early July I finally caught up with Aire on his home turf, that is the offices of the company he founded in 1996, 2 Awesome International. This is not the razzle-dazzle of Beverly Hills or the serene luxury of Bel Air. This is the heart of the LA jewelry industry - Downtown LA, where the streets are full of people that don’t have a car or a friend’s sofa to sleep on. Entering what appears to be one of the city’s older buildings I take the elevator up to the heart of Aireland. Far from the opulence I’d expected I was standing instead outside a simple reinforced wooden door. There was absolutely no indication that inside multi-million dollar diamond dreams are created. That huge diamond crosses, the iconic diamond and sapphire dog-tags, the latest craze in urban jewelry, tri-tags, and of course any A-listers ‘must-have watch’, the Aire Traveller Watch all originated from these offices. I was buzzed in, then buzzed in again. Security is tight. Now I’ve waited in a lot of jewelers’ rooms. This was no different in as much as there’s a comfy couch, computers and the whirr of machines down the corridor casting and molding the latest creations. But what was different here were the signed photos of Halle Berry and Will Smith, autographed NBA shirts and framed cover shots of a slew of international publications all acclaiming to the glory of the Iceman. Copies of ‘XXL’ Hip-Hop on a Higher Level, or ‘The Source – Streetball’ claimed space on the mahogany sideboards alongside industry publications. It was XXL’s ‘jail special’, featuring a series of articles on hip-hop and rap stars currently serving time though that aroused my morbid curiosity. [Not that I’m squeamish, but sometimes ignorance really is better].
It was the images of the jail-birds and their friends that truly shocked me. They should be every diamond dealers dream-client. In almost every photo featuring Rap’s latest prince or Streetball’s champ of the month, street-cred chic was at its highest, and that includes a huge amount of diamond jewelry sparkling on the oversized t-shirts and ballooning jeans. No simple strand necklaces or delicate bridal rings, this is street-chic at the front door. Urban crews with money like the flash, none more so than oversized diamond heavy rings and one-off pendants weighing in like a newbie. Street-hauteur calls for jewelry where less is definitely not more. Finally, the Iceman himself comes in, apologizing profusely for the delay. That night it was the Black Entertainment Television awards ceremony and Aire, as usual, was in the thick of celebrity calls. Apart from the scheduled dressings of stars such as the ceremony’s host, Will Smith, Wyclef Jean from the Fugees was in a nearby hotel, with his stylist on the phone asking for some pieces. “What do you think?” asked Aire rummaging around his safe, pulling out box after box of jewelry. “The dog-tag or the tri-tag, or both. But, is both too much?”
“I know,” he said, “the piece I made for Coca Cola Zero”. Out came a red and white gold pendant studded with 15 brilliant bezel set diamonds that Aire designed at the behest of Coca-Cola Zero. The limited edition necklace, (so limited that only one was offered to the public via EBay) was gifted to celebrities including Will Ferrell, Penelope Cruz, Missy Elliot, Adrien Brody and Lindsay Lohan. Each pendant was then engraved with the initial of each celebrity and of course the call to ‘chill’. For Wyclef, he’d be chilling later in the night during what was to be a surprise reunion of the Fugees at the awards ceremony. Having such sway amongst so many celebrity hitters wasn’t always though the case. His first designs were literally laughed out of the industry. Dog tags and diamonds, the urban militia, street-chic, were simply not on the radar for most jewelers and Aire, a lone-gun with no family strings in the trade found himself on the wrong side of the established industry railroad. When he decided to branch out on his own, he found himself literally hauling a bag of prototypes featuring borrowed diamonds across the country. “I stalked celebrities,” he grins. Something he can look back on now with a smile, considering this stalker hawking his street wares now sits on top of a multi-million dollar empire. “I’d wait outside hotels where I knew NBA players were staying and literally accost them at the entrance, trying to get them to at least look at the pieces.” During the winter of 1998, one player did, Gary Payton the then-Seattle Sonics guard. Payton and others from the team took one look at what the jewelry hawker had and bought. By the end of 1999, Aire was on an incredible roll. From the NBA to the NFL and on to Hollywood. Whether it was luck, or more likely tapping into an urban market that has, and still is woefully neglected, Aire’s rise to jewelry stardom has been meteorphoric.
“Streetstyle is everywhere,” he notes. “The inspiration is all around.” As if to prove his point he pulls out a sheaf of drawings for pieces he intends to feature in his fashion show this September in New York. Page after page, the freshness of each piece is immediately apparent. “I was in the office early yesterday and had a few minutes of quiet. So, I sat down and sketched. What do you think?” Again with this “what do you think?” If I could do the same, I’d be designing million dollar diamond pieces for Oprah Winfrey and Jamie Foxx, not writing about them. “They’re so cute,” I replied. Cute though is apparently not a description he wanted to hear. “Cute, you think they’re cute. Ah man, they’re not cute. How can you say cute?”
“Cutting-edge,” I tried. He didn’t seem convinced though, calling in employees for reinforcement that the new designs were definitely far from ‘cute’. By now I was stacked with Aire bangles, necklaces and (I’m sorry but this piece was definitely ‘cute’) a mushroom-style Red Gold ring. The constant ring of the telephone was ignored while he insisted I try everything on, with his trademark “what do you think?”
But it’s not just the celebrity market that Aire is concentrating on. His iconic RedGoldTM pieces (a unique alloy that Aire has patented and trademarked) he hopes will soon be available nationwide. The deep-rich color has proved extremely popular with his current clientele and he’s now hoping that the rest of us, (i.e. those of us with somewhat more limited budgets) will soon be able to purchase a piece of the Aire magic. His new collection features a line of ‘UNI’ designs. A circular pendant with the initials UNI running around it, separated by a heart. ‘It is,’ he says, “a gift for anyone special. Father to daughter, daughter to mother, or friend to friend. It shows that you’re special to someone.” YoU aNd I or I Love You, no matter how you read it, it signifies endless love. Finally we’ll all be able to buy the coolest endless love, no longer a Hollywood myth.