A Big Mac (hold the pickles), medium fries, and an Oreo McFlurry. It’s a top-tier order from McDonald’s for just about anybody. But it also just so happens to be Colombian reggaeton superstar J Balvin’s go-to meal. For the next month, thousands of customers will have the opportunity to get their hands on Balvin’s favorite order from the fast food giant. But you know that something exclusive had to be cooked up for the Colores artist to celebrate the momentous partnership.
Known for his eccentric collection of custom jewelry that includes everything from spinning Takashi Murakami flower pendants to rainbow-colored Rolex watches, it was only right that Balvin and his team chose to cement the collab by turning it into diamond-encrusted jewelry. In fact, the blinged-out Big Mac, fries, McFlurry, and even the glossy red tray hang from Balvin’s neck in the campaign imagery.
Gerard Alexander, founder of Los Angeles-based bespoke jewelry brand Saint Jewels, crafted the one-of-a-kind pieces—Alexander actually held a brief stint as a McDonald’s employee in 1997 while growing up in Queens. Alexander tells Complex that he had to execute and complete the designs in less than a week when most custom pieces take months. The project required sleepless nights and countless FaceTime calls and text messages to make sure that the vision of Balvin’s friend and consultant Michael Camargo (aka Upscale Vandal) was done to perfection.
“We worked basically 72 hours straight. My setter was in the office, slept two hours at five in the morning, woke up at 7 a.m., and then came back and kept setting,” says Alexander over Zoom. “Most jewelers wouldn't take [the project], and if they did take it, they'd probably do it in the cheapest, least amount of stones, and least quality possible. But I can't do that. I just can't put my name behind pieces that are not up to par with how I feel. If I can't wear it, I can't deliver it.”
Darryl “Curtains” Jackson, Camargo’s friend and business partner, introduced him to Alexander’s work. Jackson gifted Camargo a custom Vandal pendant for his birthday that was crafted by Saint Jewels. After seeing the quality, he knew he would become a repeat customer.
“Gerard is a perfectionist, as am I, and that's why I worked with him, because I know that when I say, ‘Hey, dude, I want to do something,’ it’s going to come out better than my expectations,” Camargo tells Complex. “My meticulousness matched with his intensity. It’s like he won’t stop at something that I pointed out; he’ll go further and find other flaws that need to be perfect.”
Camargo says the idea to do custom jewelry was spurred by conversations with John “JP” Petty III, the head of social strategy at legendary advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy, who is overseeing the recently launched celebrity campaign with Mickey D’s. It acted as the perfect finishing touch that added a bit more of J Balvin’s personality to the process.
The finished product was what Camargo calls a “Transformers piece” that includes three individual miniature 14-karat gold pendants to represent each item in Balvin’s meal. The trio is covered in an array of hand-set stones like black diamonds, emeralds, sapphires, and rubies to symbolize specific components like the Oreos, lettuce, the McFlurry cup, and french fry box. Each pendant can be worn individually or attached to a glossy red metal lunch tray using special pressure pins to display everything at once. Alexander says perfecting the tray, which was a piece of 150-gram gold brushed with a red nano ceramic coating, was one of the most challenging steps of the entire process. His flight to Miami to hand deliver the piece for the photoshoot was at 6 a.m. He says he didn’t complete the coating until 2 a.m. the same day.
“Rappers have been hallmarked and have gone to the hall of fame based on their jewelry and their aesthetic,” says Camargo who points out one of Balvin’s designs by Takashi Murakami is registered as an art piece. “There's nobody who knows about jewelry that can walk around now and say that there’s a current artist, rapper, or otherwise that's fucking with J Balvin’s jewelry game right now.”
While this is arguably Alexander’s biggest project to date, the 37-year-old is far from a newcomer to the jewelry business. Born and raised in Queens, he enrolled in art classes growing up and had a love for jewelry ever since he was five years old. He would steal his mother’s jewelry to gift to his crushes at school. Eventually, the two worlds blended together while attending Bayside High School in Queens when he sketched a logo pendant for a close friend to represent his crew of best friends: the “Fab Five.”
The same friend later helped him meet legendary jeweler Jacob Arabo (aka Jacob the Jeweler), who encouraged him to attend the Gemological Institute of America as a starting point to gain a formal education about various stones and diamonds. In 2007, he would finally move to Los Angeles to attend a GIA campus on the West Coast and gain proper certification to jump start his career in the business, a career path usually passed down through family. Alexander was a first-generation jeweler who had to essentially start at ground zero. Being a Black man in the jewelry industry is also a rarity, something Alexander says has presented its own set of hurdles throughout his career.
“There’s not that many Black people as sales associates out there, either. So you have to overcome a lot of the confused looks, the ‘not sure if he works here’ kind of thing,” Alexander tells Complex. “So I understand people's first initial feelings and had to break that through with charm, my education, with just trying to get people to warm up to knowing that this is what I do.”
Upon graduating from GIA, he would move back to New York City and have stints in New York’s Diamond District and on LA’s Rodeo Drive for various companies, including notable designer David Yurman, before ultimately launching his Beverly Hills-based atelier Saint Jewels in 2016. Since then, he’s crafted the pieces worn by superstar F1 driver Lewis Hamilton to the 2018 Met Gala, designed pendants for Saweetie, and made all the chains worn by Kenya Barris on BlackAF. But he acknowledges that his most recent work for Balvin will receive the most exposure. In due time, he hopes to open a personal space, similar to an art gallery, to display his original jewelry creations.
Alexander says that when the world saw the campaign images for the first time on Monday morning, so did he, when he was tagged in J Balvin’s post on Instagram. Balvin even reached out to personally thank him and discuss working on future projects together.
“Twenty-three years later, now they’re actually buying a McDonald’s meal from me. It’s kind of nuts. And I think about that, man. I think about the journey,” says Alexander. “I really stuck to what I believed in and wanted to do. If you stay long enough and believe in what you do, then good things will happen.”