14 February 2019 Courier Feb/Mar 2019

Chiokva ‘Eva’ Sam: The hip-hop jeweller

How a Chinese immigrant's store became a huge hit with hip-hop stars.

Courier celebrates people living and working on their own terms. Whether by choice or necessity, immigrants personify this better than anyone. This profile is part of a series on first generation founders in our Feb/Mar edition.

Popular Jewelry opened in 1988 – or during the high-noon of rap’s golden age, says founder Chiokva ‘Eva’ Sam. It’s an apt reference given how the unassuming jewellery store on Canal Street, Lower Manhattan, has flourished because of its hip-hop client base.

Cappadonna from the Wu-Tang Clan was the first rapper through the doors. Before long, the whole crew had become regulars. A new wave of New York rappers seeking gaudy rings, chains and custom-made grills followed.

In 2010, A$AP Rocky rolled through for the first time. ‘Hit Canal Street, vintage gold medallion. Smokin’ blunts in front of public housin,’ he raps on a track in praise of the store. Beyoncé once bought 10 pieces. FKA Twigs recently popped her head in, as did Travis Scott. Uma Thurman, Kim Jones and Jude Law have dropped in. Regular customers are more than welcome to the store, too, of course.

‘I’ve worked very hard to get here,’ says 57-year-old Eva. ‘Popular Jewelry is open 365 days a year.’

In just over three decades, the store has been closed for business only six days, while Eva allowed herself one day off last year to attend a funeral. ‘The journey to get here has been long and sometimes difficult,’ she says.

It has also been remarkable. Eva’s story is rooted in Chinese culture, interweaved with the folklore of the American dream. Her family fled their hometown in China during the Cultural Revolution.

‘My mother and father had a business providing bricks to the construction industry,’ says Eva. ‘They made a lot of money. But back then in China, rich people were punished. Except for our clothes, the government suddenly took everything away from us. It was very upsetting.’

They moved to Macau before, one by one, leaving for the US. Eva was the last family member to make the move – around 20 years ago, she can’t quite remember – because her father wrote her a letter insisting on it. ‘In Macau, it was very easy to find a good job. But my father wanted us all together over here,’ she says. From almost nothing, her father, husband, brother, sister, uncle and cousins have all managed to start up jewellery stores on and around Canal Street. ‘Rent was much cheaper back then but still, it wasn’t easy,’ says Eva.

The youngest of her two sons, William, works with her at Popular Jewelry. ‘He’s the real boss!’ she says. ‘He’s great at business, and great at the website and Instagram.’ (@popularjewelry has gained something of a cult following – and then some: it has over 90,000 followers.)

‘We’re doing very well but it is hard,’ she says. ‘Rents are very high, which is why so many other jewellery stores that used to be here have closed down. One of my brothers had three stores and wanted to pass them down to his kids, but they didn’t want to carry them on.’

She says she hopes the current climate under President Trump doesn’t diminish further. ‘He makes it hard for immigrants,’ she says. ‘I don’t like a lot of what he says, but we’ll keep smiling and working hard like we always do.

‘We like seeing all cultures here,’ she continues, warming to her theme. ‘We have a lot of Chinese customers, who all want 24 carat gold. The Spanish like religious charms. Rappers like diamonds – diamond pendants, diamond earrings, diamond necklaces, diamond grills.’

To read more profiles of first generation founders, head to the Courier shop to pick up a copy of our Feb/March edition.