The first time I hear about King Baby jewelry, it’s through my uncle, who has organized a family vacation with his kids in Las Vegas. Such a man is my uncle. I fly into Sin City to join our families, and my uncle picks me up in his Lincoln Navigator upgraded rental. No economy car for him. He tells me he needs my advice. He instructs me to take a jewelry box out of the console and open it. This is no easy feat, considering how my uncle likes to drive — speeding into red lights only to slam on the brakes. I manage to get the box open without getting a concussion. Inside is a heavy silver necklace, a rosary with weighty sterling roses for prayer beads. At the bottom, where Jesus Christ is supposed to be, is a naked woman swinging, arms over her head, from a silver ring. The necklace cost as much as a new Mac laptop (which I knew he needed).
“What do you think?” he asks.
I might have just said, “Are you fucking kidding me?” but it is a nice piece of jewelry. The heft is almost barbaric, and on Tommy Lee it would be hot. Jimi Hendrix or Robert Plant could pull it off, but my uncle? Then again, King Baby is all about livin’ large, livin’ like a rock star.
Mitchell Binder, King Baby founder and designer, has been creating these necklaces — and rings, belt buckles, lighters, earrings, wallets and wallet chains — for years, giving musicians something to brag about. He started off making beaded turquoise necklaces in his apartment and selling them on the streets of Westwood in the late ’70s, while he was still in high school. Since then he’s made one-of-a-kind pieces for celebs — including Bruce Springsteen (silver skull boot straps), Aerosmith (relic dog tags) and even Elizabeth Taylor (gold heart earrings) — and collaborated with big names in the fashion industry, including Kelly Gray and Von Dutch.
Finally he’s ended up at his own homegrown artisan shop, King Baby Studio in Santa Monica, where all the work is done by a staff of five craftsmen using the process of lost-wax casting. Each piece starts off as a sketch that Binder does himself; then he creates a wax prototype. A machine duplicates the prototype, and these copies are placed on one main trunk, branching out like tree limbs. The entire thing is dipped in a fireproof casting material to create a mold, and the wax is heated and evaporated. The mold is put in what’s called a flask, and sterling silver nuggets in the appropriate weight are melted and poured into it. After cooling, each piece is snipped off, smoothed and polished; some are set with semiprecious stones. (To see a video, go to this story at www.laweekly.com.)
You can see King Baby on many rockers these days. Tommy Lee is draped in the chunky chains; so is Nikki Sixx and the prince of darkness, Ozzy Osbourne. Even actor Adrien Brody was spotted with a wallet chain. The heavy jewelry sometimes literally costs its owners their eyeteeth. “I can’t tell you how many musicians’ teeth I’ve chipped,” Binder says with a smile. “I warn them to be careful swinging their head around, and they don’t think it will happen — but it does.”
Binder is pretty rock & roll himself. He doesn’t tuck in or button up his shirt, so a tuft of hair peeks out, ever so slightly gray; his chin sports a flavor saver. He wears all his own stuff — silver necklaces, bracelets as thick as prison chains, rings, biker boots and jeans. He rides a custom bike (he also makes custom parts for motorcycles, like his own silver suicide clutch knob and gas cap) and does lots of work for Harley-Davidson. And as if Harley-Davidson didn’t give him enough street cred, Binder also has designed the club rings for two of the most infamous biker gangs. Other custom work runs from handcuffs to wedding rings, car parts to gun pieces — you name it. He hasn’t been shocked by any request yet. “But I can’t believe the amount of jewelry emergencies there are,” he says, laughing, kicking back in his office. “I get these calls, like, ‘I need this ring by tomorrow at 10 a.m.’ I guess jewelry is so personal, it’s like a talisman, and has intense meaning to the possessor.” I can only imagine what evil spirit the naked-lady rosary was warding off for my uncle.
Mitchell tells me he got the name for King Baby from a Freudian term, how infants think the world revolves around them (it’s part of the psychological development of humans). Sounds like a typical rock star, doesn’t it?
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Not to leave the ladies out, Binder recently started a line for rock chicks called Queen Baby. Jennifer Lopez was seen sporting a very Latin-esque oversize chunky rose ring, and Paris Hilton modeled for some product shots — half naked on a motorcycle, of course. Queen Baby is filled with all kinds of rock & roll bad-girl iconography: feminine and sexy yet tough — very Janis. Binder wears all prototype pieces for a month, even Queen Baby designs, which sometimes gets him some odd looks. He feels he has to test drive everything, to make sure hands can slide into pockets, etc.
After a recent trip to Italy, Binder found himself so inspired by the churches and the architecture that he created a line called Relic, filled with fleur-de-lis, gothic reliefs and lots of crosses. He even began using gold in his designs.
There is one thing he’s tired of, though. “I tried to stop making fucking skulls for the last 20 years,” he says, “but they won’t let me stop.”
King Baby is available at Fred Segal, 500 Broadway, Santa Monica, (310) 458-8100; M. Fredric stores in Brentwood, Manhattan Beach, Encino, Calabasas and Marina del Rey; Neiman Marcus, 9700 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 550-5900; and Theodore Man stores in Malibu, Beverly Hills and Marina del Rey. Also, of course, at various hotels all over Las Vegas; see www.kingbaby?studio.com for locations.