Jocks and Jewels: Behind Big League Bling

Mike DojcCorrespondent IMay 13, 2009

This article first ran in UMM Magazine a few years back, though it still remains relevant.

We've always known that athletes need stones to play their game, and will do whatever it takes to win a ring.

These days, pros' eyes aren't only bugging out for the prize, but for watches, necklaces, and other sparkly baubles more familiar with boudoir dressers than locker rooms.

Everybody says diamonds are a girl's best friend, but “ice,” as they call the crystalline gems on the street, are also an athlete’s favorite accessory. And it's not just the style-starting basketball and football fashionistas flashing the glitter these days—even baseball players are jonesing for jewelry.

One of Manny Ramirez's $15,000 diamond earrings made the news a couple years ago when it dislodged from his lobe following a headfirst slide into third base during a rehab assignment with Red Sox Triple-A affiliate Pawtucket.

Manny delayed the ball game for several minutes as he scoured the swath of dirt around the bag hunting for his pricey piercing in vain. Intermittent attempts to find the earring between innings also turned up squat.

The grounds crew and Paw Sox players later combed the infield and unearthed the earring's stud, but no stone was ever found.

That wasn't the only time diamonds have interfered with play on the diamond.

In a more infamous incident, shortstop Omar Vizquel whined to umpires that the light glinting off former Mariners reliever Arthur Rhodes' diamond earrings was blinding him. Rhodes was told to take them off, igniting a bench clearing brouhaha.

While the players came short of blows, Lou Piniella, Mark McLemore, and Jamie Moyer had to restrain Rhodes as he hurled one too many heated invectives at Vizquel before being ejected from the game.

So where does this precious predilection come from? Why do athletes have such high affinity for jewelry?

To answer this question I sought the advice of the only man who would know, the King of Bling himself: L.A.-based custom jeweler Chris Aire.

Aire’s client list boasts Eminem, Halle Berry, Michael Vick, and over 100 NBA stars, including Kevin Garnett, LeBron James, Tracy McGrady, and Jermaine O'Neal.

These stars all swear by Aire, or the “Iceman,” as athletes and Hollywood glitterati have dubbed the master jeweler.

"Jewelry is romantic, I think it is symbolic of strength, power and success," explains Aire on athletes’ addiction to his wares.

It usually starts with a watch called Aire's Traveler, a popular item that starts at $6,500 US. With platinum and diamond upgrades, the price can go up to $125,000.

"They like to buy a lot of watches" he enthuses.

"I'm a watch guy, I like unique watches, I like all kinds of watches—things that look different—some with a lot of diamonds, and some that don't have any diamonds. I just enjoy watches and the look of them more than anything," New Jersey Net Vince Carter confides in a recent conversation.

"I have one Rolex that I don't wear much, and I like Corum and Frank Buhler," Carter continues.

Former Raptor Morris Peterson is also a watch-man.

"I have three or four watches, I have a Corum bubble watch—it looks like a big clear lens is on top of it, ice style," he says.

Utah Jazz superstar Andrei Kirilenko, may have "just five watches," but, judging by the way he gushes about time pieces on his vanity Web site, he'll soon know the sound of 100 hands ticking.

"[It] is not about collecting, but passion—I love beautiful, expensive watches. If I decide to buy them, I look closely at them for a long time. It's even possible that they are completely unknown brands…I may just simply like the mechanism or the body," crows Kirilenko.

Kiri's not alone, the collecting bug is rampant among athletes. One big-ticket jewelry purchase is rare for an athlete.

"Once you have two or three mechanical watches you have to join a 12-step program to kick the habit," claims Joe Uric, editor-in-chief of HR Watches Magazine.

Aire concurs that there is a snowball effect, or maybe an icicle effect would more appropriate way of describing the phenomenon.

"The immediate family, friends, and supporters of an athlete are like a little clique, so if an athlete buys a piece with his logo on it, he usually gets 10 or 12 other pieces so when [his boyz] go out, you can tell who belongs to what group, it's an identifier," explains Aire.

"I did something for LeBron James recently, it's his logo with all different colored stones: orange diamonds, canary diamonds, black diamond, pink diamonds, and some green diamonds," explains Aire.

I ask Aire if he'd make me a replica of the LeBron necklace so I could chill with King James and his hangers-on the next time I'm in Cleveland.

"I will never make [a replica], you'd have to go to another person to do that because it's my duty to my clients to respect them, that's why they come to me."

Oh well, so much for my grandmaster plan.

Aire at least gave me the inside scoop on his creative process: "We sit and talk about what it is they want or they ask me to give them a few drawings. Based on what I know about them and their personality I try to draw up designs tailor made to them.

"Most of the time they'll pick one of those drawings and then we'll end up rendering it into a piece of jewelry."

So that's how regular-customer Gary Payton ended up with an iced-out lock-and-key made entirely of platinum and diamonds.

Athlete tastes vary depending on their sport and their age.

"The younger basketball players tend to be a bit more flamboyant and the older ones tend to be a little bit more subdued. They will spend money on diamonds but they might not be as big as the ones the younger generation buys," explains Aire.

"The younger guys will walk around with 100 carat. Then you have the older guy who only got five carats, but the five carats probably cost more than the 100 carats. It's still classy, it's just another look."

Football players' jewelry cues echo those of basketball players. Rookies vie for large and loud items and veterans opt for more subtle beauty in their baubles.

However, according to Aire, baseball players are the most straight-laced.

"Baseball players are a lot more conservative so they want quality pieces that are conservatively elegant and they don't [care] much for size. They will go more for the collectors’ watches and things like that."

In contrast, "guys in the NBA may buy a collectable Aire traveler watch, but they'll want me to do something to it to make it look different from what everybody else has," explains Aire.

As long as salaries continue to soar, look for the relationship between jocks and jewels to intensify.

As Joe Uric candidly put his theory on why so many athletes have a jewelry fetish: "excess money."

Speaking of excess money, if LeBron James ever tires of basketball, he'd be an awesome host on Dope Eye for the Rich White Guy.

Money can't buy you taste but it certainly can buy you tastemaker status.