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73 carats and counting

Times Staff Writer

He made a $450,000 pendant as big as your forearm, shaped like the state of California, and a piece of baby bling for Suri Cruise. Across town, the competition crafted an 18-carat, black-and-white diamond pendant to look like Missy Elliott’s face for the rapper to wear in a video, and a 40-carat blue diamond and ruby Papa Smurf pendant for basketballer DeShawn Stevenson.

Jacob the Jeweler and Chris Aire? No. We’re talking Jason of Beverly Hills and Icee Fresh -- the new purveyors of bling.

Jacob Arabo may have created the genre in the mid-'90s by bedazzling the likes of P. Diddy, Jay-Z and Notorious B.I.G., but a new generation is following in Arabo’s footsteps, eager to pick up any business he may lose as a result of his legal troubles. (Arabo is awaiting sentencing in New York after pleading guilty to falsifying records and giving false statements to investigators looking into a drug ring.)

Around the country, there’s King Johnny and TV Johnny Dang in Houston, and the Avianne brothers and David Bling in New York. But Jason of Beverly Hills and Icee Fresh in L.A. have the most far-reaching clientele, with connections in Hollywood and the music and sports industries. Jason has outfitted Jessica Alba and Lindsay Lohan, and Icee Fresh’s work has been worn by Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie.

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Like its partner, hip-hop, the custom-jewelry business has gone from a cottage industry to a full-blown culture, even traveling the same route as the music -- from the streets of New York City, to the West Coast, to the South (the only place where grills never seem to go out of style).

In hip-hop, you have your public “beefs.” But in the jewelry business, the competition plays out in private, in the form of criticisms of another jeweler’s craftsmanship, pricing and quality of diamonds, and the worst: whispers of cubic zirconia. It’s all about who’s faster (at finishing custom work), who’s better (at crafting gold) and, most important, who’s got the biggest pendant.

The NBA All-Star Game is the main venue for scouting clientele and gaining bragging rights. No matter what city the game is in -- the 2008 game is Feb. 17 in New Orleans -- there are plenty of shiny stones and glittering gold worn by spectators, off-court ballplayers and the jewelers themselves. It was at the game earlier this year in Las Vegas that Ben Baller, the public relations stuntman behind the Icee Fresh brand, strutted into the seats with a giant pendant in the shape of California swinging from his chain.

Icee Fresh

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The jeweler behind Icee Fresh -- a.k.a. Steve Her or “Slauson Steve” because of his location at the Slauson Super Mall -- may not have an exclusive address, but he’s attracting rappers such as Nas, Fat Joe and the Game, not to mention Suri Cruise. (The Cruise family stylist Jeanne Yang ordered a “Suri” pendant with diamond-encrusted lettering as a gift for her first birthday.)

On the corner of Slauson and Western avenues, the Super Mall is a maze of booths lined with clothing and jewelry. Between the latest Nike Air Jordan and Air Force 1 sneakers sits an unassuming kiosk with a vault in the back. The prized piece inside is the California pendant with a 3.23-carat diamond marking the city of Los Angeles. The land mass is covered in princess-cut canary-yellow diamonds, and the Pacific Ocean, complete with waves, in ice-blue diamonds. Nearly 2,500 stones decorate the piece, which weighs more than 3 pounds with its rope-like chain.

Her, 31, who is dressed down in a T-shirt and jeans, has a serious look about him, but he’s quick to smile. He worked 10 years in his family’s jewelry business before taking over when his father retired four years ago. He doesn’t even like to wear jewelry.

He says much of his custom work, like L.A. fashion and music, is inspired by gang culture. “If you’re from L.A., you’re from somewhere,” he says, referring to customers’ affiliations with their “ ‘hoods.” Various diamond-studded number pendants and gold sports-team emblems acknowledge affiliation to certain sets or gangs.

Although most custom jewelry exists outside of the fashion realm, Icee Fresh has taken a stab at being more fashion relevant by jumping on the Japanese craze of Casio G-Shock watches. (The G-Shock as fashion statement began hitting magazine covers this year when Kanye West sported one that was a collaborative piece by Bathing Ape designer Nigo.) Icee Fresh has added gold and diamond encasements for the faces. The watches start at $10,000 and go as high as $100,000. “We’ve sold about a dozen so far this year,” Her says.

Jeff Hong is in charge of sales; Ben Baller, born Ben Yang, represents the celebrity arm of the business, having worked in the music industry since the early days of Jay-Z, as well as in marketing for Nike. Baller’s friends include rockers Good Charlotte, Kim Kardashian, DJ AM and celebutantes Hilton and Richie. After a chance meeting with rapper Fat Joe at a cafe on 3rd Street, the Icee Fresh team was invited to a recording session where they showed off a 60-carat pendant shaped like the road sign for L.A.'s east-west artery, Interstate 10. The New York rapper and longtime Jacob the Jeweler customer quickly took a shine to it. He ordered a similar pendant in the shape of the East Coast’s I-95 shield.

Jason of Beverly Hills

Ten miles north but a world away is Icee Fresh’s local competition. Jason of Beverly Hills -- that’s 29-year-old Jason Arasheben -- grew up in Calabasas, the son of a prominent downtown real estate investor and jeweler. His dad wanted him to be a lawyer after he graduated from UCLA, but Arasheben had a different idea.

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“I’ve always been a big fan of music and sports, but I’m not good-looking enough to act or athletic enough to play ball,” he says. “So, I figured this was a way to follow my dream.”

Just a stone’s throw from Rodeo Drive, the waiting room outside his office in Beverly Hills is lined with celeb pictures. Down the hall is his custom design factory, which has computer-powered equipment that lays out blueprints for his custom finery.

Arasheben claims an impressive client list including the Saudi royal family, Michael Jackson and DJ and rap icon Biz Markie. He’s done engagement rings for actor Mekhi Phifer and singer Brandy, and is on the speed dials of actress Alba, LeBron James and Ashton Kutcher, who sports his signature Dunamis diamond watch.

Dressed in a tailored black vest with an oversized, striped pink tie, jeans and a pair of black Ted Baker shoes, he talks fast, like a salesman. “Hot, young money” is how he describes his clientele. In addition to his custom-made, three-dimensional pendants, he’s nearing completion of a 2,800-square-foot boutique just downstairs from his Wilshire Boulevard offices, which will make him even more Rodeo Drive official.

Arasheben is all about giving customers the red carpet treatment. He sends a Rolls-Royce Phantom to escort them to the store and hires private security officers for those who spend in excess of $100,000 or who borrow pieces for events. James and rapper Ghostface Killah are on that list.

“Jason is the only guy I mess with,” says Lil Jon, the platinum-selling rap producer.

The Ed Hardy artwork on Lil Jon’s forthcoming solo album “Crunk Rock” inspired a $275,000 cobra pendant. The eye-popping piece holds 63 carats of white, yellow, blue, green and cognac colored diamonds set in 18-karat white gold. The snake’s heart and belly are encrusted in rubies. “Some of the stuff Jason’s done for me I compare to Liberace,” Jon says.

But Arasheben has an even bigger claim to fame. In a page pulled from the publicity stunt handbook, earlier this year he secured the Guinness World Record for the largest diamond pendant. Spelling out “Crunk Ain’t Dead” in large letters, it’s 7.5 inches tall, 6 inches wide and 1 inch thick, weighs 5.11 pounds and contains 73 carats in diamonds, with 3,756 round-cut white diamonds in all. And true to the one-upmanship of hip-hop culture, someone’s already hot on his heels.

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Akon, an R&B; singer with his own South African diamond mine, is making a pendant in the shape of the African continent, a piece that he says will be big enough to cover his stomach.

But will there be a hip-hop star with a neck strong enough to hold it?

--

camilo.smith@latimes.com


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