The Brooklyn-native’s designs were most recently seen on Kerby Jean-Raymond and Lena Waithe at the 2019 camp-themed event.
Despite being born in the United Kingdom and spending some of his youth there, Johnny Nelson is an undeniable Brooklynite. On the day we spoke, his outfit was the first indicator of that: A very “New York” hodgepodge of weather-sensible, stylishly layered clothing and flashy accents of gold and silver jewelry sprawled across his fingers, hanging from his neck and his ears. The 31-year-old’s strong Brooklyn accent was the second clue, only occasionally giving way to a barely detectable British cadence.
But the last and most significant sign of Nelson’s bonafide Brooklyn-native status was his collection of stories depicting an eclectic childhood and young adulthood spent largely in Crown Heights. Those broad-reaching stories always seemed to have one consistent element that threads them together: music. More specifically, hip-hop. Whether it was hosting parties, debating favorite artists with friends or making his own music (his 2011 song “Put Em in a Body Bag” spread throughout the downtown New York music scene like wildfire shortly after its release), hip-hop remained a punctuating force throughout Nelson’s life.
In fact, it was hip-hop that sparked Nelson’s winding journey to become a jewelry designer. “Put Em in a Body Bag” got him noticed by Baltimore rapper Spank Rock, who promptly brought him on tour as his hype man. Nelson felt at home and confident on stage, but something was missing.
“My swag was up, all of my chakras were aligned. But I was like, ‘Yo, I want to look as good as I feel right now.’ I felt like my stage performance is excellent, but I knew that I could add something to it. I wanted to make some jewelry… to add to the performance art,” he explained.
Coming from the same school of the New York-bred creative and entrepreneurial spirit that drives household names like Dapper Dan and Vashtie Kola, Nelson was never one to simply go out and buy jewelry. Case in point: Once, in an effort to accessorize, he grabbed a couple of matches and stuck them in his ears. After making that his signature look for a while, Nelson began spotting matches in people’s ears throughout downtown New York and Brooklyn.
For his tour with Spank Rock, Nelson required something that could be seen on stage from the back of a crowded venue, and matches didn’t have that effect. Though he had no idea whether she knew how to make jewelry, he asked his mom to make him something. She crafted a two-finger, wire-wrap ring that garnered him a lot of attention and compliments. His mom obligingly made several more for his friends, but Nelson eventually had her teach him how to make his own so she was no longer at the whim of her work’s growing popularity among his sprawling crew. Then, in 2017, a few years after he first began making rings and his jewelry designs began to reach a wider customer-base, Nelson founded Johnny Nelson Jewelry.
Fast forward to today, and Nelson is no longer making wire-wrap rings — though he intends to get back to them someday. Instead, he makes a broader range of statement pieces, like his “Forever Lit” match earrings (a homage to his early days of dabbling with jewelry design), his “African Misfit” chain and, perhaps most famously, his “4 Fingers of Def” ring, which features the faces of rappers Biggie Smalls, Tupac Shakur, Eazy-E and Ol’ Dirty Bastard carved into it — similar to the U.S. presidents’ faces on Mount Rushmore.
“With [4 Fingers of Def]… it’s a big conversation piece about who’s on your hip-hop Mount Rushmore,” Nelson said. “I feel like each one of these [rappers] have their own personal styles that made them super dope. Everybody has their own thoughts on what each person meant to the culture.”
Since founding his company, Nelson has had a number of career milestones as a jewelry designer, including being featured in the “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum — a place he and his friends used to skateboard, often being chased out by the police. But Nelson’s most visible career highlight came when fellow Brooklyn native Kerby Jean-Raymond, founder of Pyer Moss, commissioned Nelson’s work for the 2019 Met Gala — one of the most conspicuous fashion events of the year.
About two weeks before the gala, Jean-Raymond asked Nelson to create sculpture portrait buttons, as well as Black power fist cuff-links, to adorn his and Lena Waithe‘s suits. For the buttons, Nelson was tasked with sculpting the faces of eight of Jean-Raymond’s favorite hip-hop artists (Nipsey Hussle, Jay-Z, Meek Mill, Kendrick Lamar, Tupac, Drake, J Cole and Nas) to be placed on the designer’s suit, as well as eight LBGTQ icons (RuPaul, Dorian Corey, Freddie Pendavis, Octavia St. Laurent, Paris Dupree, Pepper La Beija, Venus Xtravaganza and Willie Ninja — most of which starred in the 1990 ball culture documentary “Paris Is Burning”) to be placed on Waithe’s suit.
Nelson had experience creating the faces of hip hop legends, so the most challenging part of Jean-Raymond’s request was finding the perfect angle of each of Waithe’s chosen LGBTQ icons in to sculpt from.
“I had to make sure that I get the straight portrait, but it’s so hard because in the film, every frame is a new angle… I feel like everybody knew that they were being filmed, so they were like, ‘This is my time to shine, I’m going to give them the angles that they never saw before or that they never thought could be done.'”
But while capturing the stars of “Paris Is Burning” presented a unique challenge, watching the documentary was also the most exciting part of the project for Nelson. “It just gave me an added respect for the [LGBTQ] culture just because I [now] understood where a lot of things come from. [For instance], I have so many friends that throw the balls, but I didn’t know [where it came from],” he said.
Still, despite a momentous career moment like the Met Gala and many more likely to come, Nelson’s ultimate goals for his company are still deeply entrenched in how it started: with him and his friends.
“I would say [Johnny Nelson Jewelry is] punk, it’s hip-hop, it’s spiritual,” he said. “I want it to be super inclusive because I have friends from every realm of the world… I feel so left out when people are like, ‘Yo, man, I work at an office, so I can’t really rock the big rings.’ [When I hear that] I’m like, okay, boom, let me get to the drawing board and design something a little bit more classy but still has the same message. That’s the goal — to make something for everybody.”
Once in a while, ghosts of those beginnings, when it was just Nelson and his friends, find their way to him while he’s out and about in New York. Most recently, Nelson was at the Everyday People Brunch, a popular monthly gathering downtown, and saw a woman wearing a wire-wrap ring. When he asked about it, she said a friend gifted it to her, but she and Nelson were eventually able to trace it back to him as one of his early designs that must have floated through the city, falling into different hands until ending up in hers.
“That was the best feeling ever — to see that ring that I made so many years ago that still looks so beautiful,” he said. “And she was just wearing it, feeling so good.”