Joseph Arabo, better known as Jacob the Jeweler is a mass of energy. There are two elements you cannot take your eyes off: his thick shiny black hair that most men would die for and a thick shiny glittering watch that most men would die for. Even he can’t keep his eyes off his watch. Despite the hip hop connections, this habit comes off far more White Rabbit than Flava Flav.
Anyone who knows anything about modern celebrity culture has heard the name and seen the product. As for the man himself, Jacob the Jeweler is something of an enigma. "People think I make diamond guns, crosses, and Jesus heads," Arabo says. "I’m capable of doing jewelry for everyone, not just [athletes] and rappers. I have jewelry for little five-year-old girls and for girls who want to buy two-million-dollar pink earrings."
Twenty-five years ago, Arabo, his parents, and two of his four sisters came to New York from Russia. His father was in the liquor business and his mom stayed at home. "It was very hard for them to adapt to the new lifestyle. It was very difficult financially," he remembers. "I said to myself, ‘I’ve got to go and make money and get this family back on its feet.’"
Though his father had hoped for Arabo to continue the family business of making vodka and wine, he had other ideas. At 16, Arabo left school to study jewelry-making. After four months of training, he fibbed about his age so he could qualify for his first job. Nine months later, he had increased his weekly salary from $125 to $1,500. "The reason they were paying me so much was because I started designing this new jewelry and their company really took off."
And then Arabo took off. "When I left, within a year I had 10 jewelers working for me." He was only 18 years old.
It was Arabo’s passion for his business that catapulted him to financial success. He literally went to the ends of the earth. "I went to Brazil, I went to Africa, I went to Russia to buy diamonds. Some go to Brazil [only] to the diamond office. I went to the worst places, where it’s dangerous." It is representative of the way he has pushed himself from his days as a teenager. According to Arabo, "If you don’t put yourself through tests, you cannot really appreciate this life."
Every family member, from Arabo’s sisters to his three sons, is involved with the business. "It just works with our family," says Angela. Arabo’s sister was responsible for helping him make one of the smartest decisions of his career. About 10 years ago, Faith Evans walked into his nondescript Midtown Manhattan store. She loved one of his rings and asked if she could leave a five-dollar deposit until her boyfriend came in the following day. Arabo had no idea who she was and laughed at how absurd her proposal sounded. It was his sister who stepped in with timely advice. "My sister said, ‘What have you got to lose? The girl wants it - put it away for her.’ " Arabo told Evans to take the ring.
The next day, Biggie Smalls came in and paid for the ring, along with a few things for himself. Smalls then brought over LL Cool J and Sean "Puffy" Combs. They brought over their friends, and a legend was born.
As the recommendations snowballed, Arabo made a famous four-finger ring for Biz Markie. "He admitted to me that he sold three million records because of that big ring," Arabo says. "I introduced the [music] industry to better-quality diamonds," Arabo continues. "I brought platinum into the jewelry business and [everyone] converted."
On one of the office walls hangs a massive framed piece containing 16 platinum records, along with a plaque and written thanks to him from Roc-A-Fella Records. "What kind of respect do I get from them, they send me this to hang on my wall?" Arabo asks, clearly pleased.
Always on the move, Arabo is partnering with DeBeers diamonds to move out of the place that’s been home to his business for 18 years. "I want to own my own building and have more room to display, more room to entertain my customers." Asked what will happen to his current fan base, Arabo turns on the salesmanship. "[I’m moving] only 10 blocks uptown. I’m not going uptown to lose customers. I’m going uptown to keep my customers and gain more customers."
The new location is very glamorous. Directly across the street from the Four Seasons Hotel, Arabo says, "I call it MTV coming to 57th Street. That’s what’s coming, the jewelry version of it." The first pictures have arrived of the new "face" of the new Jacob: Thalia. The Latin songstress and wife of Tommy Mottola is dripping in diamonds. From a very 10021-friendly diamond necklace of petite white stones punctuated with heart-shaped canaries to a more theatrical, in-your-face massive pink rock.
Before Arabo goes running off, he shares his business philosophy. "When I was a kid, [my father] always said, ‘Whatever you do in life son, you have to do the finest, the best. Otherwise, don’t do it. You do it from the heart. Your good faith in what you deliver will come back to you 10 times over.’ That’s what I do. I make sure that what I sell to the customer is happiness, quality-wise and looks-wise. [Then] it makes me happy."