Chris Aire, impeccably hip in a pinstripe suit, black shirt and chunks of his own jewelry, sits at his glass-top desk, two stacked televisions mounted overhead. But don't expect ESPN or MTV to be blaring, not that Aire isn't a sports or music-loving man. In fact, most of his high-profile celebrity clients come from these worlds. Instead, playing on the screens captured by 32 security cameras in his 12th-floor office digs in downtown L.A. are the goings-on in his office, where he and a crew of 20 are making his custom-designed urban jewelry that can best be described with words borrowed from the hip-hop-loving nation: bling-bling.
As in razzle-dazzle.
Security matters when you're known as the Iceman, the designer behind pricey diamond-loaded creations worn by rappers, athletes and movie stars, including Oscar's golden couple Halle Berry and Denzel Washington. Other wearers: Angela Bassett, Donald Trump, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, Eminem, Gary Payton and Allen Iverson, and, come Jan. 24, the National Football League's man of the year, who will be given one of Aire's signature watches to donate to his favorite charity. In the spring, Saks Fifth Avenue will stock that item -- the Traveler Watch -- the price of which will range from $6,500 to $125,000, depending on the level of flash one seeks: a single or double row of diamonds, sapphires or rubies or the whole works.
"Chris' jewelry is flashy but not gaudy," says Kenny Smith, formerly of the Houston Rockets and co-host of TNT's weekly program, "Inside the NBA." "You know, he does things that would look good on any rapper and any rapper's mother."
But, mostly it's athletes he has locked up, claiming "the majority of the NBA are my clients." His most recent high-profile item: the wedding ring for the newly hitched Shaquille O'Neal. It's a stunning size 16 (think napkin holder), adorned with 192 princess-cut diamonds, wrapped around the band in six stacked rows.
For rapper Brian "Baby" Williams, he designed a $2.1-million necklace adorned with mega bling-bling on Aire's signature Red Gold -- an amber hue achieved by mixing red alloys with gold. Williams wore the piece on the cover of last month's Source magazine, a copy of which the rap artist autographed for Aire and is now part of the designer's collection of customer mementos -- signed footballs, basketballs, baseballs, jerseys, boxing gloves and photos. A photo from actress Berry sits next to one of Aire's wife, Diana, and their two children.
"I don't want this to come off sounding arrogant, because it's not meant to be, but I'm just always humbled that I am in this position at this point in my life. It's nice to be noticed for what you love doing," he says.
In 1996, when Aire opened his company, 2 Awesome International, it was with every cent he had saved: $5,000. Initially known for his work in yellow and white gold, his business grew quickly and expanded with his innovative designs in platinum and precious stones.
As a kid growing up in Benin, West Africa, Aire says he was surrounded by miners and talk of gold, sapphires, emeralds and diamonds, but never imagined he would become a jewelry designer. When he immigrated to the United States, it was to study acting and directing at Cal State Long Beach and with the hope he'd become the next big thing in the movies. Instead, he struggled to find work. He formed a band, Raw Silk, which produced an independent album, "Paradise," but he was making no money and sleeping on friends' couches.
It was then that Paul Bayanan, owner of P-5 Jewelers in downtown L.A., needed help with paperwork in his business and hired Aire. "I helped him and he taught me about the jewelry business," Aire recalls. Bayanan sat down his still-unfocused protege for a talk. "He told me, 'You can do whatever it is you want to do, but your problem is you want to do too many things at one time.' "
Besides being mentored by his friend, Aire enrolled in jewelry design classes taught by instructors with the Gemological Institute of America and soaked up everything he could about the craft and industry. For the next six years he worked for some of the country's biggest jewelry manufacturers, but realized he needed to break out on his own. "I wanted to get my big pieces out there, designs I would show to other jewelers who would say to me, 'Who is gonna wear that?' "
Aire knew exactly who: big athletes with big pockets to pay for big things. He made his jewelry and put the pieces inside a small suitcase. Then he staked out various professional basketball team practices and games. "It's funny but I was almost stalking," he says, laughing. He'd show interested players his wickedly cool pieces, and hey, if anyone was interested, yes, they were for sale.
One of his first clients was Gary Payton of the Seattle Supersonics. "He was coming out of an L.A. hotel, about to get on a bus to go to a game when I walked up to him and said 'My name is Chris and I am a jewelry designer and I know you like jewelry.' " Payton became a fan -- and a friend -- and made a point of telling other people about Aire's work.
Aire's friends describe him as genuine and trustworthy. Of himself, Aire says he prays everyday and sees his life as a spiritual journey.
"Do you know when I started in this business it wasn't one that was open to people of color? People would tell me, 'What are you doing here?' But I knew in my heart what I wanted to do and what I was going to accomplish. I had my faith. I had my good name and my good reputation and it's good to know that I still have all that. That's more valuable than any piece of jewelry I'll ever make."
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Glitter for the glitterati
Created to benefit the Muhammad Ali Parkinson's Research Center in Arizona, the boxing glove-shaped, Ali-signature pendant is studded with 291 diamonds. Price: $30,000.
A double-sided heart charm bracelet, with the equivalent of 9.28 diamond carats, was Chris Aire's biggest Christmas seller. Among its wearers is actress Jada Pinkett Smith. Price: $18,560
Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal married Shaunie Nelson Dec. 26. His wedding ring (shown at its actual size 16) is made of 192 princess cut diamonds equal to 10.70 carats. Price: $30,000.
The amber-colored Red Gold that Aire has developed was used in the diamond necklace designed for rapper Jay-Z. The pendant contains the letter "R" -- as in Rockefeller and rich. Price: $25,000.
A custom bracelet created by Aire for Allen Iverson of the Philadelphia 76ers is made of platinum and studded with 75 carats worth of diamonds. Price: $450,000.
Dog-tag necklaces feature the buyer's choice of initials. This one -- "O" for Oprah Winfrey -- was a gift from Halle Berry, who bought 20 for friends at Christmas. Price: $2,500 to $18,000.