Rising out of the Rockefeller Center subway station on Sixth Avenue and 47th Street in Manhattan’s Diamond District, wearing oversized Versace sunglasses, holding a bright Chanel bag and, already at 5’10, teetering in four-inch heels, Erica Diggs smiles broadly and hugs the first person she sees at the top of the steps. After a couple careful paces, the bodacious Diggs, comfortably out of place, does the same to a second acquaintance, and then to a third, and so on. She finally arrives at the Leon Diamond storefront where, upon entering, she greets more familiar faces. “They all got my back,” Diggs says of the people she addressed over the twenty-five-foot walk, all of whom carry out some duty or another, from sales to security, in the jewelry industry. “But it wasn’t easy for me to be accepted by them. I had to show them I knew what I was doing.”
Diggs, thirty-five, is a jeweler, the entrepreneur behind Diggs & Co. and a designer-for-hire at Leon Diamond. Her self-described “hip-hop style” bling has attracted superstar clientele from both the music industry and the sports world, while her social-media savvy has scored her over 100,000 followers on Instagram and Twitter combined. But before she ever sat down at a goldsmith’s bench or unabashedly strutted her stuff on social media—documenting her latest chiseled creations along with her incredible curves—Diggs first had to survive the streets of New Orleans, the war-torn deserts of Iraq, and the dressing rooms of Hollywood starlets.
Born on a naval base in Louisiana and raised on the Mississippi River’s west bank in Avondale, Diggs was the only child of her father, a Vietnam veteran turned landscaping business owner, and mother, a daycare worker. Despite her parents’ sometimes-tumultuous relationship, Diggs says she was the center of attention, but found herself in trouble throughout her childhood. “I was just always an inquisitive kid,” she says, explaining she had a knack for uncovering guns, adult films and other items not intended for children’s eyes that her father would hide around the house, though she was guilty of other youthful indiscretions, like hiding her secret boyfriend in a closet.
Diggs joined the Air Force once she was of age after an unsuccessful stint in college. Ironically, she wanted her independence, feeling as though her parents were too strict. As it turned out, boot camp was “fun,” and her parents’ overbearing nature prepared her for survival—she smuggled Skittles into her bunk, hiding them in her pant straps where officers weren’t permitted to search her.
Nearly six years and one large-scale terrorist attack later, Diggs found herself serving as a field medic during the Iraq War. She was initially stationed in Jordan where she once had a machine gun pulled on her by a civilian car accident victim whom she was trying to assist. (That was the second time in her life a gun was pointed at her; the first was during a robbery at a store she worked in back home.)
Throughout her three tours of duty in and around Iraq, the always-fabulous Diggs survived mortar attacks—sometimes doing her nails while ducking for cover under a desk—and took care of countless wounded soldiers. “At first, it’s really hard seeing all those traumatic injuries,” she says. “But after a while, you’re just at work. You just take care of one patient at a time and move on.”
It wasn’t the casualties of the battlefield that caused her to leave the Air Force in 2008. Instead, it was first her grandmother’s death and then her father’s, just as each of her last two tours in Iraq were beginning. “I started to feel like if I did another one, I was bound to lose someone else that was close to me,” she says.
Diggs achieved a lifelong dream of becoming a beautician, earning a certificate in Los Angeles, thanks to her GI Bill compensation. Finding it rather stressful to cater to the needs of famous females—“You have to be their makeup artist, their friend, and their psychologist,” she says—she fatefully decided to strictly work with male talent, and soon landed a gig with actor Brian White, who that day remarked it was difficult for a man to get his hands on good jewelry. Diggs offered to manufacture a bracelet for him, which he coveted greatly, compelling him to introduce Diggs to other celebrities in the market for custom pieces.
Today, Diggs lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn and has a 50/50 business agreement with Leon Diamond, fulfilling orders for them while they supply her with additional materials she can also use to complete her own projects. Since meeting White, she’s crafted golden grills, glittering rings, nifty necklaces, and blitzing bracelets for the likes of Chris Brown, Tyrese, Akon, Snoop Dogg, and other artists, along with athletes Jason Pierre-Paul and Odell Beckham Jr. of the New York Giants, among others, after making a sports connection with Kenny Thomas, formerly of the Sacramento Kings. But her success is attributed to much more than a few hookups who helped spin her a network web. She’s taken scores of classes, is a certified bench jeweler and a CAD designer too. She attended one jewelry tradeshow after another, hustling to meet insiders who could, if nothing else, provide her with some insight on how to get ahead. She spends hours on social media every day hopeful to make a personal connection that could lead to a sale, and carries out all the tasks of a full-time jeweler.
Diggs is making a name for herself in spite of being in a male-dominated field. The perks include parties with celebrities “who just like to have beautiful women around,” but she’s not letting the nightlife get in the way of her creativity. Inspired by her own active lifestyle—and constant desire to look flawless—she’s launching a line of custom, 14-karat gold fingernails that don’t have to be frequently removed.
“Everything about me has to sparkle,” she says.
It doesn’t appear as though the Erica Diggs glow is going out anytime soon.
To contact Erica Diggs and see some of her work, follow her on Instagram and Twitter at @DiggsAndCo