In November 2003, Jay-Z performed a sold-out “retirement” concert at Madison Square Garden. Every major artist in hip-hop and R&B was in attendance. Beyonce, Ghostface Killah, Pharrell, Missy Elliott, Foxy Brown, and Mary J. Blige all performed alongside him. At 10 years into his career, he was already one of the greatest rappers of all time and was on the cusp of becoming one of the most important cultural figures of a generation. On that night, to mark the momentous occasion, Jay-Z was wearing a Jacob & Co. Five Time Zone watch.
The Five Time Zone had been launched a year prior by Jacob Arabo, the famous 47th Street entrepreneur known as Jacob the Jeweler, a nickname that had been given to him by Biggie Smalls.
The piece had four subdials (zones) that showed the time in New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo, and Paris. Each subdial, as well as the principal dial, was decorated with bold primary or pastel colors. The watch was powered by a quartz ETA movement. It came in 40mm or 47mm with the original press release from 2002 stating that the watch transcended gender. The Five Time zone could be purchased in stainless steel and different precious metals, with or without diamonds on the bezel; fully gem-set was also an option. Every model came with easily interchangeable straps: four polyurethane bands with deployant buckle for plain timepieces, two alligator bands for diamond accented timepieces, and four alligator bands for all diamond dial timepieces. It was Arabo’s very first watch collection, the price started at $5,500. In May 2002 a bikini-clad Naomi Cambell wore one in a photoshoot by Gilles Bensimon, styled by the inimitably named Carlyne Cerf de Dudzeele for Elle. And then the floodgates opened. Pharrell bought one, Busta Rhymes bought one, Sean “Diddy” Combs bought one, Bono bought one. Teenagers and rappers in the USA and in Europe wanted one. There were six-month waiting lists for wholesale suppliers. Arabo’s Jacob & Co. Five Time Zone watch was modeled after a watch that now 57-year-old Arabo received from his father back in 1978 when he was just 13. “It was my first watch,” he told me. “It had two time zones, two movements, and a map of the world in the middle. That’s the original inspiration that led me to create the Five Time Zone. I still have it.”
The journey to the epicenter of hip-hop notoriety started when Arabo emigrated to the US from Uzbekistan with his family in 1979. By the age of 17, he had already enrolled in a six-month jewelry-making training program. In 1986, Arabo, then 21, launched his own luxury label: Jacob & Co. Five Time Zone watch
Jacob the Jeweler went on to create an entire universe of bespoke diamond-encrusted regalia for many of the most important musicians in the world. He sold and placed pieces on almost every big-name celebrity which in turn made diamonds and fancy-colored stones visible to a much larger audience. Opulent jewelry no longer belonged exclusively to Elizabeth Taylor or Liberace or Upper East side heiresses. He even introduced Bape founder and pop star Nigo and Pharrell, two figures who changed the way men wore jewelry by embracing the use of colored diamonds and pushing totally new boundaries of jewelry design (including the now famous gem-set Gshock watch). Arabo essentially created an entire category of jewelry culture. Above all Arabo was a marketing genius, the heir apparent to Tito Caicedo, the New York-born and raised son of an Ecuadorian immigrant who founded his first jewelry store on Canal St and later moved to the diamond district in 1984. “Before Arabo there was Tito, but you’d be hard-pressed to put a face to his name,” said creative consultant Ferris Bueller, who was working for Roc-A-Fella when the watch dropped and then went on to work with Pharrell at Star Trak Entertainment. “Tito was a name but Jacob the Jeweler, well, he was a personality.”
By the time of his first Jacob & Co. Five Time Zone watch release, Jacob the Jeweler had already created his own jewelry legacy. In the early ’90s RUN DMC and Slick Rick were wearing colossal dookie rope chains and by the end of the decade, Sean “Puffy” Combs and Jay-Z were wearing platinum and diamonds. It was a new look and it could all be traced back to Arabo’s modest booth inside the Kaplan Diamond Exchange on 47th Street. It’s hard to imagine now, but at this point, the traditional luxury world did not appreciate hip-hop. This was long before Virgil Abloh for Louis Vuitton, before A$AP Rocky would be the star of a Dior Campaign or Young Thug the face of a Calvin Klein campaign or Jay-Z himself a brand ambassador for Tiffany and Co. 47th Street catered to the hip-hop contingent. Arabo was not the first jeweler to attain a huge celebrity client list on 47th Street but he was the best at developing and sustaining relationships. He allowed clients to trade up older custom pieces for new creations and always kept his word when it came to ensuring one-off designs were never copied. Vikki Tobak, author of Ice Cold. A Hip-Hop Jewelry History, told me over the phone, “He recognized the mutual hustle with the hip-hop community. You can’t front on his come-up story.”
Arabo made such an impact that in 1999 The New York Times named him the “Harry Winston of the hip-hop world.” He was featured in countless rap lyrics and starred in the video game Def Jam: Fight For NY where hip-hop action figures compete to earn cash to buy Jacob’s diamond jewelry. Before Arabo men in the mainstream didn’t wear diamonds, after him, they did. It’s no accident that the word “bling” was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2003. The word actually comes from the song “Bling Bling” by BG and Cash Money Millionaires, they were singing about men wearing diamonds, and men were wearing diamonds because of Jacob. It was common practice for hip-hop artists’ A&R rep to take them to Jacob the Jeweler once they had signed to a label or achieved another milestone. They could buy a Jacob & Co. Five Time Zone watch to signify they had made it. The watch became a symbol for the glow-up.
“This watch’s five time zones spoke to aspirations of being global. It spoke to certain aspirational elements of hip-hop culture and making it,” Tobak said. “The Five Time Zone came along at a very specific time in hip-hop history and music culture. That watch couldn’t happen again now. It was a perfect storm of the music business getting money, stepping into its power, becoming interested in the luxury world, coupled with the luxury world not loving hip-hop.”
But Arabo’s influence was about to extend beyond hip-hop and into the world of Swiss watch making.