From Run-DMC’s thick-rimmed Cazals to Quavo’s iced-out Cartiers, rappers have always been drawn to the finest pieces of eyewear. And within this last decade, Julian Emani—better known as Vintage Julz—has built a reputation as one of hip-hop's largest purveyors of rare vintage eyewear. For the past six years, the 29-year-old Philly native has operated his one of a kind shop on South Street in Philadelphia. From Chanel to Jean Paul Gaultier, Julz has sold pricey vintage specs to rappers such as Lil Uzi Vert, Schoolboy Q, Quavo, and even the late Pop Smoke. A pair of rimless “Big C” Cartier glasses that Julz sold to the Brooklyn drill rapper even made its way onto Pop Smoke’s iconic Meet the Woo 2 album cover. In Julz’ opinion, it was one of the most impactful vintage eyewear sales of all time.
“Anybody who has ever sold Cartiers will tell you, there was never a time where people wanted Cartiers more than when Pop Smoke wore them, and this was even before he died,” Julz told Complex over the phone. “Everybody wanted the “Big Cs” with the Hennessy tint. The same way that Pop Smoke had them. From Detroit to New York to China, everybody wanted the Pop Smoke glasses.”
Within 10 years, Julz went from being an unpaid intern at the Vintage Frames Company to making a six-figure salary off reselling vintage eyeglass frames. But Julz is more than just a plug who can source a pair of $3,000 Cartiers with buffalo horn temples. He’s a true vintage glasses historian who could identify the exact pair of Gaultiers that Jean Reno wore in Leon The Professional, and school you on the first pair of frames Christain Dior released in 1960. We spoke to Julz to gain a better understanding about the hype behind vintage eyewear, how he sources his product, and why Cartiers are currently the most popular glasses within hip-hop culture today.
How did you first become interested in just buying and selling vintage eyewear?
About 10 years ago I moved to Canada to work for [Corey Shapiro’s] Vintage Frames Company. I became his assistant. I was a street kid from Philly and I just graduated college at the time. I went to school for radiology, selling a little bit of weed, but was always into fashion. When I graduated school, I didn't really know the next thing I was going to do in my life because I just studied radiology to make my parents happy while I did my little thing on the side. I saw that Vintage Frames had an internship, hit him up, and didn't even give him a resume. I just told him about myself. Let him know that I'm from the streets of Philly and I loved fashion. He ended up hitting me back and gave me a shot. I've never been out of the country before that. I got a passport and hopped on a plane that week. I did an unpaid internship for three months and I paid out of my pocket to live there. The rest is history. I did that for three months and then he employed me for two years, so I studied under him.
In 2016, I flew back home to Philly and linked up with Shyne Jewelers, who does all of Meek Mill’s jewelry. My first store was half glasses and half jewelry. I did that for another two years. And then for the past four years now I've been on my own selling glasses.
In Detroit, Cartiers are deeply embedded in the city's street culture. Are there any specific eyeglasses tied to Philly?
Philly has always been big in fashion. We've always been one of the pioneers. So the old heads in Philly, they dabbled in the Cartiers but it wasn't like Detroit. So in Philly, the main thing that was popular were the old school Cazals, the Alpinas, and the Porsches. They used to bust store windows to steal them back in the day. They would knock them off your face. There were murders over them. It was the same type of stuff that you hear about these Cartiers in Detroit. It was just on the East Coast in Philly.
Were you always interested in vintage eyewear?
I always wore glasses, but before I met Vintage Frames [Corey Shapiro] in 2010, I just wore stuff that you could get from a standard Sunglass Hut like Versace or Gucci. When I started opening up the door to vintage frames, I started doing my research. I fell in love with brands such as Jean Paul Gaultier, Cazal, Christian Dior, Fendi, Gianni Versace, and of course, Cartier. Once I had my first vintage frames, which was a pair of Jean Paul Gaultiers, I never looked back. I threw out all my new ones and I only wanted vintage from that point on because the quality was unmatched. I love how they were rare. I could wear something and people wouldn't know where to find them. I always liked being unique.
What's different about how these glasses were made back then compared to today?
Usually with anything vintage, the quality is always going to be better than stuff that they're making today which is mass produced in China. For example, old Cartier in comparison to new Cartier. The old ones were made in Paris. They had the best craftsmanship and used materials like buffalo horn. The optical industry is pretty much one of the biggest monopolies in the world. Eyewear for all these brands, Christian Dior, Fendi, Chanel, it's all under one umbrella corporation called Luxottica. These companies license off their rights to make their glasses and then Luxottica handles all the manufacturing because they have the factories overseas. So the vintage models are just way better quality. And then there's always the rarity aspect.
What are your all time favorite pairs of vintage frames?
My favorite brand is Jean Paul Gaultier, which ironically has just catapulted into today's style. I know Jean Paul Gaultier just retired, but his style fits in perfectly with what's going on today. That grunge steampunk look. Now it's just nice to see him get the recognition that he always deserved. Leon The Professional is also one of my favorite movies of all time. That's another thing that really grabs me with this industry. I’m a big movie buff. Johnny Depp in Blow, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Goodfellas, Donnie Brasco with Al Pacino and Johnny Depp. If you look at all these movies you'll recognize these glasses that I'm selling are in these movies.
When I would watch these movies I would recognize the glasses. So that's how I started off being a historian rather. Researching old movies, old musicians, and old celebrities. They all wore these vintage glasses. Laurence Fishburne, Al Pacino, Stevie Wonder, and even Elton John. There's a history really geographically. Wherever you're from, there's going to be some reference to today's culture.
You sold glasses to the Migos, Pop Smoke, Gunna and many other celebs. Who was your first big client and what did they buy?
I sold glasses to everybody from Lady Gaga to the Migos. Gunna, the late great Pop Smoke, Young Thug, you name it. We're the ones who probably started their interest or peaked their interest in glasses. When I first started, my first client was Rich Homie Quan and he was one of the first people in the industry wearing Cartiers. He was my first celebrity appointment and his first purchase was a pair of Cartiers.
He just walked into the store?
This was actually in Canada. When I was still working under Vintage Frames this was the first appointment that I did on my own. So pretty much Quan, we had mutual people. I reached out and went to the venue. I pull up with vintage sunglasses inside like a dealer briefcase. I have a Fendi one that pretty much encases all the glasses. So I'll pull up to the appointments with my assistant, show you hundreds of glasses to choose from. We have a mirror, we can run your credit card, whatever the case may be. Quan was the first appointment in Canada. And my first appointment when I came back to Philly was Troy Ave.
So you’ve sold glasses to a lot of rappers. What do you think are the most popular eyewear frames for rappers today?
Cartiers take the cake right now. I mean, I've never seen anything like it. Cartiers were always Detroit. It was always their staple or like a trophy rather. If you made it, you wanted a pair of Cartiers. Nowadays, I feel like it's a worldwide thing. So people in Detroit tend to take offense when they see other people wearing Cartiers because they hold it so close to their heart. That's really their culture, these Cartier glasses. Right now the whole industry took that small piece of Detroit culture and it spread itself out to the whole world. Don't matter where you are, they're going to love Cartiers.
In terms of design, do you think Cartiers were the most impactful glasses within style?
Cartiers definitely set the bar. I mean, they used wooden and buffalo horn temples. So as far as intricate, eloquent details, Cartier takes the cake on the high end side. But then there’re brands like Jean Paul Gaultier, which has the most intricate details. That steampunk fashion is unmatched. Gaultier put a pair of forks on the side of his glasses. It’s just crazy that he was so far ahead of his time.
It boggles my mind because I'm 29. I have clients ranging from teenagers to old men who are trying to get the glasses they had from back in the day. I'll ask these old people questions like: "Yo, how was it walking into a store and seeing these things on a shelf?" It must've been crazy because my store is one in a million. It's the only place in the country you can walk in and you can see these one of a kind designs on a shelf. But back in the day, it was just like it was nothing.
Right, back then you would visit your local eyeglass store and it just sat there.
I find that crazy because nowadays you gotta get past my security. Right now, we're doing appointments only. We started off as a walk in, but now it's so much traffic. We got people traveling all over the globe every day. We have people flying in literally just for two hours to come to an appointment, pick out the glasses, and they hop right back on a plane to go back home. That's how serious it is.
Obviously, glasses were a huge thing for Pop Smoke. What can you say about your time with him?
Pop Smoke was a real one from the gate. Never came at me funny, never wanted something for free. He only showed me genuine love on Instagram, which in today's world is earned. Pop Smoke ended up breaking the first pair of glasses I sold to him a couple of weeks later, like most artists do. He called me up when he was shooting the Meet the Woo 2 album cover. He said "Julz, I need you to come to New York. I have a photo shoot." Now remember I'm staying at the store with my assistant. I looked at him and go: "Man, I got a busy day today. I don't know if I could go. I don't know if I could go to New York."
But when Pop Smoke asked me to do that, I dropped everything I was doing because I had a feeling that he was a real one. I went to New York, we went to Jue Lan, we smoked, ate, and vibed. I brung all of my glasses inside a briefcase and he bought two pairs. He ended up going crazy with the glasses. I mean, he got rimless Cartiers with the Hennessy tint. “Anybody who has ever sold Cartiers will tell you, there was never a time where people wanted Cartiers more than when Pop Smoke wore them, and this was even before he died. Everybody wanted the “Big Cs” with the Hennessy tint. The same way that Pop Smoke had them. From Detroit, to New York, to China, everybody wanted the Pop Smoke glasses. He ended up wearing them for the album cover.
Pop Smoke wasn't trying to be something he wasn't. He was him and a real one. He was thorough, man. When I was out there with him, I had people hitting me up like, "Yo, Pop's a real one. He threw you up on his page." I didn't ask him to post me. I never asked him to tag me. He did it out of the goodness of his heart. And he paid me as well. Artists usually don't want to promote you, don't want to pay you, or they'll want a discount. Pop knew what came with his name. And he knew what he could bring other people. I made at least $100,000 off of his post.
What’s your favorite memory of a celebrity shopping at your store?
Besides Pop Smoke, I mean, my favorite has got to be the Migos. Quavo, Offset, and Takeoff are all like family. They welcomed me with open arms. These people nowadays, these little kids, I feel like we're in a generation where they want instant gratification. They want success when they want it. And it doesn't work like that in the real world. I pretty much paid my dues, man. I took flights for these people, showed up to cities that I've never even been to before, only for them to not answer their phone. I've been through hell and back. Now, I think my name and my brand is at a respectful level where it's all about business.
What was your biggest sale? And how much do you make every year doing this?
I make well over six figures. I've been doing that well for about three years. My biggest sale is probably around $50,000 for one person. Quavo and the Migos easily spent $50,000. I had Young Dolph and Schoolboy Q come close to that. They're all big spenders, the $30,000 to $40,000 club. That amount of money is around 20 pairs of glasses.
I read that you found a supply of Bugatti glasses inside an old British opticians warehouse a couple years back. What can you share about the process of building your inventory?
I started off as an historian, so there's a lot of steps that go into it. First you have to research the glasses: the brand, the manufacturer, where it’s manufactured, and how many pairs are in existence. You have to make the phone calls. I started off literally going through a phone book and calling up every optician that has gone out of business since 1980. Whoever answers their phone, I tell them a little bit about me, but I never tell them who I am because once they Google me, then they raise the prices. They suddenly see the market and learn that something sitting inside their basement has value. So they up the prices and try to hit me over the head. I always keep a low profile or use an anonymous name.
One out of 50 people I contact, I'll get lucky and find either one frame or 100 pairs of frames. It just really depends on that person and what they were doing. Some people are just sitting on hundreds of thousands of glasses. They don't have the market or know the market. So I found an old Bugatti glasses factory. I started selling those for $150, and ended up selling a pair to Meek Mill. Before Lil Uzi Vert got famous, when he had like 3,000 followers, I sold him a pair of Bugattis. After his come up, the Bugattis catapulted into a $2,000 pair of glasses. So as far as seeing a pair of glasses go from $150 to $2,000, I'm single handedly responsible for that with the Bugattis. I've never seen such an increase.
The Bugatti glasses, those were actually gifts that came with a car purchase, right?
Yeah, the Bugatti glasses were a gift accessory they gave you back in the day when you bought a car. Porsche, Jaguar, and a lot of other car brands also did that back in the day.
The vintage eyewear game reminds me of jewelry but feels even more niche. I noticed dealers like Vintage Frames have begun making reproductions. Has it been getting harder to source these frames over the years?
Yes. Vintage Frames Company was the first one to do it. So I started out interning for him years ago and I put the work in. Nowadays, we're a dime a dozen. Honestly, I would consider myself number one. But there's so many little kids now that have seen my business. They want to meet up with rappers and they want to do this. But as far as qualifications, I don't think there's anybody touching me as far as that. But yeah, with more competition it makes it harder to buy new inventory. It all comes down to your resources, your knowledge and your connections.
I noticed that brands like Polo Ralph Lauren have tapped into its vintage collector’s community, Have eyewear companies like Cartier reached out to you?
All the time. I'm in touch with Cartiers. In the future, our number one goal would be to work with Cartier directly. I mean, that would be my Holy Grail. Cartier is mainly a jewelry brand. Their glasses are secondary to their high end luxury jewelry brand. And they've been doing it since the 1800s. So as far as tapping into the culture, like what Louis Vuitton did with Virgil and what Chanel did with Pharell, I'm still waiting for Cartier to do something like that. I'm curious to see if Cartier is paying attention to the culture and to people like the Migos who are making their frames a worldwide phenomenon. I guess only time will tell.
Brands like Jean Paul Gaultier and Cazal have also reached out to try and purchase one off, super rare, frames that I own. I have some Christian Dior frames from 1960 that they would love to get their hands on. The very first Christian Dior frames they had ever produced. It has Swarovski crystals, it’s literally jewelry for your face. Christian Dior was actually the first luxury brand to license off their rights to another company, which was Tura, a big eyewear brand, to produce their eyewear in 1960. I hold the largest archive of these glasses. I have over 30 pairs and they are valued anywhere from $5,000-$10,000 a piece.
I dabble in every brand. So right now, because of the culture, I do Cartier 24/7. But I also specialize in all other vintage brands. Christian Dior, Fendis, Chanels. I'm an eyewear historian. I fell in love with Cartier. I got Cartier tattooed on me. Like I said, Jean Paul Gaultier is always going to be my favorite. But I still have nothing but love for other brands like Fendi, Dior and Chanel.