Jacob Arabo's office is no bigger than a church confessional, with newspaper and pictures taped over the window. There are a few cheap chairs and one Formica desk. Yet some of the world's richest athletes can be found hunched inside the room, squinting through a jeweler's loupe. "I have found that they don't care if you have the nice office or the leather chairs," Arabo says. "They can get that at Carrier. My customers care about quality and price."
Arabo is the jeweler of choice for such NBA stars as Stephon Marbury, Allen Iverson and Reggie Miller and for boxers Mike Tyson, Roy Jones Jr. and Prince Naseem Hamed. Shaquille O'Neal dropped $170,000 for one of Arabo's bracelets. Many NBA players consider a visit to Arabo's shop in the Diamond District of Manhattan a must on any trip to New York City. "Players have an agent, a lawyer, a doctor, a masseuse," Arabo says. "Now, some must have their own jeweler."
Arabo, 35, emigrated to New York City from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in 1979, when Uzbekistan was still a Soviet republic, and at 17 began working on West 47th Street. In 1985 he was able to rent a counter in the Kaplan Diamond Center and began selling his own designs. Soon rap's biggest stars were wearing Arabo's garish jewelry. The fusion of music and sport has brought NBA millionaires, and Arabo estimates that about 30% of his clients are athletes.
He is reluctant to talk about sales totals but says that his annual revenue is about $20 million. Still, he says, he doesn't live like a millionaire. Arabo has five employees, including his wife, Angela, and uses some 15 contractors, but he does the designing himself, often in consultation with clients. "Musicians and athletes are the same," he says. "They all want something no one else is wearing."
A pendant and a chain Arabo recently made for heavyweight boxer Monte Barrett is based on one of the medals Barrett won in a New York Golden Gloves tournament. A wax and then a rubber mold were made based on Arabo's sketch of two interlocking gloves. The rubber mold was then filled with platinum, the metal of choice for athletes and musicians, and then 16 carats of diamonds were added to the back of one glove. The finished pendant weighed nearly a third of a pound and cost Barrett $22,000. "The president of [Island] Def Jam [Music Group], Lyor Cohen, bought me a watch Jacob made for my birthday a few years ago," says Barrett. "Now I won't go to anyone else."
Arabo is close enough to some clients to be considered part of their entourages. He attended Derek Jeter's birthday party at a Manhattan club and to a private party at Marbury's house in New Jersey. The importance of a jeweler in some athletes' lives was underscored this summer when jeweler Brents Bullock of Ocala, Fla., went to dinner with NBA free agent Tracy McGrady and Toronto Raptors officials as the team courted McGrady. "I am at their beck and call," Bullock says of his clients.
The calls Arabo loves most are from Marbury, the New Jersey Nets' guard who ranks with rappers Puff Daddy and Jay-Z among Arabo's best clients. One of Arabo's favorite pieces is a $250,000 bracelet Marbury purchased. "It's about three inches wide and looks like a basketball net," says Arabo. "It's platinum with 130 carats of diamonds."
Arabo is a familiar sight at championship fights, says Barrett. His advertising comes from his customers—Jay-Z mentions Jacob in his song Girls' Best Friend, BET shot an episode of Rap City in his store, and Chris Rock stopped by recently to tape a bit for his HBO show. As a result, Arabo says, "I don't really see myself as having any competition."
Jeweler Chris Aire, owner of 2 Awesome International in Los Angeles, disagrees. In addition to rappers, Aire also sells to O'Neal, Elton Brand, Shawn Kemp and other NBA players. Aire, who moved to LA from Nigeria in 1984, says he was "discovered" by Gary Payton. "Jacob Arabo? Never heard of him," Aire says.
Arabo sidesteps a chance to start an East Coast-West Coast feud. "Next I am going to do pink gold with platinum and diamonds," he says. "It will be something completely new. But you won't see it for two years."