Jeweler's hip bling-bling makes his cash register ring-ring

Designer Chris Aire counts athletes, stars among his clientele

February 16, 2003|By Michael Quintanilla | Michael Quintanilla,Special to the Sun

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 Los Angeles 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 and Allen Iverson.

"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 of the Los Angeles Lakers. 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 a recent issue of Source magazine, a copy of which the rap artist autographed for Aire and is now part of the designer's collection of customer mementos.

"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 Interna-tional, it was with every cent he had saved: $5,000. Known first for his work in yellow and white gold, his business grew quickly and expanded, with 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 an actor. Instead, he struggled to find work. He formed a band, Raw Silk, which produced an independent album, Paradise, but he was making no money.

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. Aire enrolled in jewelry design classes taught by instructors with the Gemological Institute of America. 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. 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 told other people about Aire's work.

Aire's friends describe him as genuine. Of himself, Aire says he 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."

Michael Quintanilla is a reporter with the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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