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Cartier Kings

How designer sunglasses have come to represent status and violence in Detroit.

The General, who refers to himself as the “Cartier King,” wears White Buffs with his red T-shirt and hat.
The General, who refers to himself as the “Cartier King,” wears White Buffs with his red T-shirt and hat.

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Darryle Miller was just 20 years old in the summer of 2010 when he was killed for his Cartier sunglasses. Known to his mom as Little Darryle, the 6’6” former high school basketball star from Detroit had taken a 30-minute drive to Somerset Collection mall in Troy, Michigan earlier that summer to purchase the $2,400 pair of Cartier C Décor white buffalo horn frames, better known simply as “White Buffs.”

Although they may seem frivolous to outsiders, Cartier glasses are a status symbol in the city, and for over 30 years, they’ve remained a staple of Detroit fashion and culture. With a retail price that’s since jumped to $2,650 and up for the most popular frames, they’ve also become deeply associated with crime. They’re referred to as Carties, Cardis, ’Ye’s, or Sticks. For a while, the most fashionable designs were the Woods, made with Bubinga lumber, and Wire Frames, with lenses fixed in a thin gold rim. But today, at the top of Detroit’s Cartier eyewear hierarchy are the “All White Buffies,” immortalized by local rapper Rich Ken on a song of the same name. The whiter the Buffs, the more coveted the frames, and D. Mills, as he was known to his friends, wore a pair the night he died that were as white as ivory.

They were so visible, so goes an eyewitness account, that even as he emerged from a dimly lit underpass after a rare celebratory night downtown, they were spotted by a man who was lurking in a dark alley. He was tall, even next to Darryle’s power-forward frame. Brandishing a handgun, he demanded Darryle’s glasses.

“Darryle just took off running,” says Rod, Darryle’s best friend and roommate at the time. Rod waited a few seconds, then started following them.

Temples of White Buffs, along with custom diamond work by Golden Sun Jewelry, which specializes in customizing Cartier glasses.
Two pairs of White Buff temples, along with custom diamond work by Golden Sun Jewelry, a Michigan store that specializes in customizing Cartier glasses.

He says he heard a shot and rounded the block. Darryle was still running, but soon, he lost his footing and tumbled to the ground. The man stood over Darryle, grabbed the glasses, and started to run. Rod gave chase, but the man turned the gun toward him and shouted, “If you keep following me, I’m gonna air this bitch out.” Darryle died later that night from a single gunshot wound to the back, leaving behind a two-year-old daughter.

It’s been just over seven years since Darryle’s death, and his case remains open. “I’m going to keep on fighting until somebody is brought to justice,” says his mother Rose. “You don’t go out and take somebody’s life for a pair of glasses.” But when it comes to these particular glasses in Detroit, Darryle’s story is no outlier. According to the Detroit Police Department, between 2012 and 2016, Cartier glasses figured in nine homicides, 17 non-fatal shootings, and 2,158 robberies. There was the time in 2014, where, in exchange for a watch and Cartier glasses, a man named Timothy Jones helped a neighbor dispose of his wife’s corpse. And there was the trio of carjackers who drove off with $1,600 in cash and a pair of vintage frames, and the two-man holdup crew that deprived a 29-year-old of his glasses and, for a time, the full capacity of his right leg. In these stories, Cartier glasses weren’t the central target, just a lucky come-up, but the year Darryle Miller was killed, Detroit Police reportedly estimated that a staggering 15-20 homicides were in some way related to Cartier glasses.

Detroit’s chief of police James Craig insists that the nexus of crime and Cartiers does not necessarily indicate a trend and that it is impossible to glean motive from the numbers provided by his department. “Prior to my arrival there may have been some instances where Cartier glasses have been one target of a robbery, but I cannot say definitively to you that they are necessarily an object of attack,” he says on a brief call in July before heading to a screening of the film Detroit. He seems protective of how the city is portrayed, and with good reason. Craig was appointed in 2013 and tasked with reinvigorating a beleaguered department in the midst of the largest municipal bankruptcy in US history. At the time, Detroit was the murder capital of the United States, and with an average police response time of an eternal 41 minutes, some called the ongoing violent crime problem a “public health issue.” When it came to Detroit’s struggles, Cartier glasses were just another symptom.

Big Sean in a pair of Cartier sunglasses.
Big Sean in a pair of Cartier sunglasses.
Photo: Thomas Falcone

The history of violence associated with the glasses is not lost on the Cartier owners I spoke with, but that does little to dissuade patrons captivated by the allure of what they mean. “It was a symbol in the city of ‘I’m seeing some type of success, I’m seeing some type of money,’” says Big Sean, arguably the biggest rapper to come out of Detroit since Eminem. In a place where nearly 40 percent of the population lives below the federal poverty line, sending the message that you’re above that marker has value. It’s a chance to show the world that you’ve elevated yourself out of those conditions.

Cartier is not unique in this way. In 1984, The New York Times reported that “Cazal eyeglass frames, which are particularly popular with teen-agers, some of whom wear them without lenses, have figured in 191 robberies this year, according to police records.” A few years later, Sports Illustrated published a cover story titled, “Senseless,” about the nationwide plague of murders involving Air Jordan sneakers and other popular sportswear. Nobody wants to be considered poor, and like Cazals and Jordans before them, Cartiers have the uncanny power to make you feel like you’re not. Real-life rose-colored glasses.

About a year after D. Mills passed, Big Sean appeared on BET’s famed talk show and hip-hop rite of passage 106 & Park. Midway through answering his first question, he reached into the pocket of his dark jeans and pulled out a pair of Cartier Woods. “I always said that if I went on 106 & Park, that I would do some shit like that ’cause I knew what that meant to Detroit,” he said.

Big Sean is one of many Detroit rappers to operate as an unofficial brand ambassador for Cartier. The hip-hop community helped mythologize Cartier sunglasses, but the style’s history began before Big Sean and even before hip-hop. As Sean explained, “I don’t know how it started. I can only tell you how I remember it.”

Snatch his Carties off his face / Snatch his Carties off his face / Snatch his Carties / Fuck driving all the way up to Somerset

—“Snatch Yo Carties” by Bizarre feat. King Gordy and Young Calicoe

Cartier’s first foray into eyewear was a diamond-encrusted lorgnette, a pair of opera glasses custom-made for a French princess in 1887, 40 years after the company was founded. For close to a century, the company’s optical offerings were relegated to ornate, special-order pieces, but in 1983, Cartier debuted its first line of mass-produced glasses with an extravagant launch party in Tunisia attended by Elton John.

According to one luxury goods analyst, the company has typically been a “weak player” in the luxury eyewear industry, dwarfed by the likes of Ray-Ban and Gucci, and until recently, was “losing material amounts of money.” (Notably, while Ray-Ban and Gucci sunglasses are in the luxury category, their prices are far lower than Cartier’s, with a pair of Ray-Bans averaging $150 and most Gucci glasses going for around $400.)

While Cartier’s specific financials are difficult to discern, its parent company Richemont saw a 45.6% drop in overall profits last year. This was at least one of the catalysts for the company’s hallmark eyewear licensing deal with luxury conglomerate Kering, which owns Gucci, Balenciaga, and Saint Laurent, among other brands.

Spencer Shapiro, a friend of Doughboyz Cashout, sorts through pairs of Cartier sunglasses for them to wear during a music video shoot..
Cartier White Buffs cost $2,650; there are less than three dozen pairs available for purchase at authorized dealers around the world.

Until the agreement, which was announced in March 2017, Cartier was unique in the luxury eyewear market, maintaining control over everything it produced. Most high-end designers don’t make their own eyewear, instead signing licensing deals in which an optical giant like Luxottica develops and sells collections under a brand’s name and pays the company royalties. It appears that eyewear has been an afterthought for Cartier’s business, which is largely known for fine jewelry and watches. In Detroit, however, it’s everything.

Cartier’s history in Motown dates back to the final years of the city’s heyday, and the city’s stunning collapse mirrors the glasses’ improbable rise. In 1969, at the Somerset Collection mall, Dr. Herman Bennett opened AuCourant, one of the first licensed Cartier eyewear dealers in Michigan. Two years earlier, a speakeasy raid ignited latent racial tensions and sparked the most violent riot of the 1960s. After five days, 43 people lay dead and the events marked the beginning of Detroit’s plunge toward economic desolation. The population plummeted as residents relocated to the suburbs, but while white flight robbed the city of business and jobs, Bennett became an unlikely beneficiary of the demographic shift. With a new luxury eyewear store situated on the edge of the city, he soon found out that Detroiters could not get enough Cartier glasses.

For close to a century, Cartier products were almost exclusively worn by monarchs and aristocrats, but increased access to air travel in the ’60s and ’70s exposed a new crop of creatives and fashionistas to luxury goods. By the mid-’80s, blue-collar line workers at car manufacturers were putting excess earnings toward adorning their faces with a visible signifier of wealth, Cartier. In the years following the riots, Bennett’s business took off thanks to a wave of nouveau-riche clientele who wanted to be treated like royalty.

Even the experience of purchasing a pair makes you feel like a king. When a sales associate is interacting with a prospective buyer, Cartier mandates the following procedure: First, the associate puts on white gloves. Slowly and gently, they remove the glasses first from the red Cartier case, and then from its black glasses case. The glasses are then transferred to a tray or a white leather pillow, and finally, the associate places them on the face of the customer, lest a human fingerprint tarnish the white buffalo horn.

When Detroit’s manufacturing economy declined in the ’80s and ’90s, fewer auto-industry employees frequented the store, but business stayed consistent as crack infiltrated the city due to a new breed of clientele: drug dealers.

Cartier glasses and handguns with extended clips lay on a table in a house in Detroit.
Cartier glasses and handguns with extended clips lay on a table in a house in Detroit.

“BMF were cashing out Carties like crazy,” says Amy Rosenberg, Bennett’s granddaughter and AuCourant’s former manager, referring to the Black Mafia Family, a notorious Detroit crime syndicate that ran an operation estimated to be worth over $270 million. Finding new patronage in Detroit’s rising criminal element, Cartier glasses continued to flourish, and other businesses were hungry to cash in on the trend. “Everyone wanted that account,” according to Rosenberg.

Another employee of a licensed Cartier dealer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, explains, “If you have the money to open a Cartier account, you can make money hand over fist.” But with high insurance premiums due to the risk of theft, the barrier to entry is substantial. And when you’re not an authorized dealer, there are other, more nefarious avenues for obtaining the product.

You think 'em wire frames shining? / I'll be at the pawn shop before this rhyme end

—“Cartier” by Danny Brown

While AuCourant has changed ownership and is now called Optica, it remains the centerpiece of Detroit’s Cartier economy, one that extends to pawnshops, unauthorized dealers, independent distributors, vintage retailers, customization specialists, and an enormously profitable black market.

In two years, the Somerset store lost $200,000 worth of Cartier glasses to theft, many of which are likely still in circulation. “My friends were held up at gunpoint and handcuffed in the back,” says Rosenberg, explaining how a mix of grand theft, shoplifting, credit card fraud, and regular snatch-and-grabs feed the underground Cartier distribution circuit. “And another time right at closing, these kids came in, put a gun to my coworker’s head, and cleaned out the entire case. We had a video camera, but they took that too.”

According to a Cartier sales associate, only 33 pairs of White Buffalo horn Cartier glasses are available at authorized retailers worldwide. The anonymous Detroit employee compares them to the ring in The Lord of the Rings: “They become possessed by it. The money, the prestige. I’ve worked with people that have literally committed theft on their way out the door.”

The General, who refers to himself as "The Cartier King," drives around Detroit's west side.
The General in his White Buffs.

“I ran out of Somerset mall in Troy, Michigan with my first pair,” says The General, a gaunt but imposing figure who also refers to himself as the Cartier King because of the number of glasses he claims to have stolen and sold over the years. “Got caught for it a year later.”

With an FN Five-seven handgun loaded with a 30-round extended magazine in his lap, The General drives his white BMW to a trap house to pick up two Percocets for $20. When we arrive, the man selling pills is sitting on his front stoop wearing Cartier Giverny wire frames. He describes them as “more professional” than the White Buffs that The General has on. After all, he is currently working his 9-5.

They will look at [White Buffs] and think: dope dealer or rapper,” the man explains. “I learned young. I walked [into court] before with White Buffs. Went back to jail. And the bailiff told me it was because I looked like a drug dealer. Because you walk into court and you say you don’t have a job, but you’ve got on $2,500 glasses.”

Back in the car, The General complains that the younger generation preserving the practice of Cartier snatching doesn’t have a clue what they’re doing. “They done robbed people for they glasses and left ’em with a $50,000 watch on. For some $3-$4,000 glasses?! All they know is Cartiers. They hear all the music with the Cartiers. That’s what they grow up listening to. That’s what they fucking want.”

Continue to smoke / Looking through my Cartier frames / Counting change / Really don’t fuck with no loc

—“Uncle Jesse James” by Streetlordz

Detroit hip-hop and rap lyrics in particular played a vital role in educating young men on Cartier culture. Frequent Eminem collaborator Royce da 5’9”, who’s almost never photographed without a Detroit Tigers hat and some Cartier frames, mentions them on songs like “Shake This”: “On some couple thousand-dollar suit type shit / From behind thousand-dollar Cartier scrips.” One underground group called Bandgang refers to themselves as “The White Buff Boyz,” although, as their manager told me, they recently had all of their glasses confiscated in a federal raid. And in an early track from rapper Danny Brown called “Cartier,” he raps, “And I think them wood frames better on me / Sold 'em for six, coulda got a G.” Thanks to artists like these, Cartier has received a wealth of free advertising, and, according to Rosenberg, the music has actually translated into revenue.

“The early 2000s is when a lot of the rappers started rapping about the glasses. There was a spike in sales, and during that time, we were the number one Cartier seller in the world,” she claims. Much of that free advertising came from the Streetlordz, a locally revered underground rap group. Not only did they immortalize the style on popular songs like “Uncle Jesse James” and “They Don’t Want No Drama,” the group’s breakout star, Blade Icewood, popularized the practice of putting diamonds on wood Cartier frames — hence the name Icewood.

Gary Yee, manager of Golden Sun Jewelry, stands in front of some of the Cartier sunglasses he sells.
Gary Yee, manager of Golden Sun Jewelry, stands in front of some of the Cartier sunglasses he sells.

“All of Blade’s jewelry came from us,” says Gary Yee, owner and co-founder of Golden Sun Jewelry, a custom jeweler that specializes in Cartier products. As Gary gently puts down a tray of approximately $90,000 worth of Russian cut diamonds, he explains that for $3,800 and up — on top of the $2,650 retail price for White Buffs — he will expertly solder the nose bridge with solid 14-karat gold. Then, he’ll embed diamonds in the bridge, the temple bracket, and finally, the signature Cartier ‘C.’

“People got sick and tired of everyone in Detroit having the same Cartier glasses. It’s like, ‘I spent all this amount of money and everyone else is onto it,’” he tells me as one of his employees finishes assembling a fresh pair of diamond buffalo horn Cartiers. Iced Buffs are so popular that Gary has to maintain a backlog of $6,450-plus frames. “Each day,” he says, “we sell an average of 8-10 pieces of Buffalos.”

Before the Streetlordz garnered any significant national acclaim, Blade Icewood was killed as the apparent result of a rap beef with a rival crew called the Eastside Chedda Boyz. According to locals, the initial argument that led to Blade’s death stemmed from a dispute over ownership of the name “Chedda Boyz.” Soon after, Street Lord Juan went to prison on drug charges, where he remains to this day. Street Lord Rook got locked up too, and only a couple weeks after his release, he was at a gas station when he watched his friend get shot in the back over a pair of Carties.

Today, Detroit is seeing small but meaningful improvements in its decades-long struggle with violent crime. Not only that, but the population decline is slowing and jobs are coming back. But who benefits from a more prosperous Detroit? At Zeidman’s, one of Detroit’s oldest pawn shops, I meet a 23-year-old white customer wearing a black python skin Balenciaga backpack that retails for around $3,450. He’s looking for some vintage Cartier frames to add to the four-pair collection he’s amassed in the year since moving from Chicago to Detroit. Beginning in 2015, there’s been an uptick of affluent white transplants that’s left longtime residents uneasy.

Doughboy Fresh (center) shares a laugh with Payroll Giovanni (left) and Darko (right) during a Doughboyz Cashout music video shoot.

“I always liked nice sunglasses,” the kid tells me, “and now I can afford them. I work in the legal weed business and business has been good this year.”

As he buys yet another pair of Cartier sunglasses made popular by the Streetlordz, one of the group’s founding members, Rook, is rebuilding his life after his recent release from a four-year prison stint for conspiracy to sell marijuana.

Not long after the Streetlordz disbanded, a crew of ambitious high school students from the Westside who called themselves Doughboyz Cashout stepped in to fill the void as the city’s newest underground street crew and as Cartier’s unofficial spokesmen. Much like Doughboyz’s former label boss Jeezy, they make music to motivate people and often seem more focused on the fruits of their hustle than the details of the hustle itself. They dress fresh and drive the best cars in Motor City, both because it’s fun and because they want to send a message that they’re free from the poverty that gnaws away at the neighborhoods that raised them.

Hit New Orleans, bitches showing tits, throwing Mardi / They can tell I’m from Detroit by the diamonds in the Cardi

—“Heartbreaker” by HBK

The night I meet them, the guys from Doughboyz Cashout have gathered in the lobby of the Westin in Southfield, Michigan to meet Spencer Shapiro, a 24-year-old Cartier aficionado and the group’s de facto eyewear dealer. The Detroit native calls himself a “board-certified Cartiologist.” Since middle school, he’s bought and sold high-end goods, and before narrowing his focus to designer glasses. He’d deliver limited-edition sneakers by bicycle to friends around the city. Although he’s not officially associated with Cartier and all his frames are individually sourced, Spencer uses a network of authorized dealers to repair and customize frames.

Spencer sinks into a puffy red leather chair with three rectangular Cartier boxes, also red, stacked on his lap. A few of the Doughboyz huddle over him. HBK, short for “Heartbreak Kid,” comes up for air holding a pair of vintage Cartiers nicknamed 52 “Teardrop” Woods — 52 for the size, teardrop for the shape, and woods for the material.

“I used to have these,” he says. “Matter fact, they were my first pair.” HBK is trying them on for a music video he’s shooting later in the evening. In Detroit, you can’t film a rap video without Cartiers.

Spencer Shapiro supplies Cartier glasses for the Doughboyz.
Spencer Shapiro supplies Cartier glasses for the Doughboyz.

“In high school, we was known for the Cartier glasses,” says Payroll Giovanni, the group’s star hit maker. Today, he’s one of the few members of Doughboyz to have retired the look. “I just left them alone back in the day. I was hustling around the time, and I used to keep a lot of cash on me, and I didn’t want to have some young, crazy-ass robber coming up on me and taking my re-up.”

“Why are y’all talking about robberies and shit? We wanna get sponsored by Cartier,” interjects Big Quis, another Doughboy, described as the group’s wildcard. He recently released a track called “White Buffs” that features ascendant Detroit rapper Tee Grizzley. Quis, who’s rarely photographed without his signature dark tinted White Buffs, believes the murders and robberies overshadow the true meaning of the glasses. To him, they represent something aspirational, even if the ghost of their stigma is always looming.

Unfortunately for Quis, there’s no sign that Cartier has any interest in associating with Detroit. This is in part a business decision. Two short-lived Cartier boutiques came and went in the region — one in the Renaissance Center and another in Somerset.

Unlike Paris and New York, Detroit doesn’t see the volume of wealthy clientele necessary to maintain an official Cartier store. Residents may line up for entry-level luxury items like sunglasses, but stop short of purchasing $120,000 watches and 5-carat diamond rings.

The only hint of recognition from the brand came with the release of a special-edition pair of Woods with blue and orange stems, the exact same colors as the Detroit Tigers uniform. It could have been a coincidence, but it’s also possible Cartier is happy to quietly profit from its sizable Detroit customer base without ever forging a real relationship with those patrons. (Cartier did not respond to repeated requests for interviews.)

HBK wears Cartier 52 Teardrop Woods while shooting his “Heartbreaker” video.
HBK wears Cartier 52 Teardrop Woods while shooting his “Heartbreaker” video.

At a 2015 luxury goods summit in Monaco, Richemont chairman Johann Rupert said, “What keeps me awake at night is how society will cope with structural unemployment and envy, hatred and class warfare.” With Ferraris parked outside and yachts docked in the shadow of the nearby palace, he explained that when the underclass rises up, “the people with money will not wish to show it.” Until then, it seems more likely that these glasses will turn the poor against one another.

Detroit doesn’t enjoy the traffic that musicians from New York or LA do, and its cultural isolation has been a hindrance for some of the artists here. But it also explains why a fashion trend like Cartier glasses can grip the city for decades. Today, artists from places like Atlanta to the Bay Area are wearing Cartiers, and the Doughboyz take pride in the fact that Detroit seems to finally be getting its due. The city is beginning to be defined by its culture again, something that arguably hasn’t been true since the Motown era.

Later in the night, over a bottle of Patrón Silver, the Doughboyz and a sprawling group of their friends gather at a Radisson to finish the last shots of HBK’s music video. Just as it appears we’d exhausted the topic of Cartiers, one of the group’s managers, Doughboy Darko, speaks up.

“I knew someone that was got killed for them. Cat named D. Mills,” he says, wringing his hands and looking at the ground through the brown tint of his Buffs. He remembers how good Darryle Miller was at basketball, just as his mother Rose and roommate Rod do. “He was coming out the club. I ran into him in there. We heard the gunshot go off. Sure enough, they killed him for a pair of White Buffs.”

HBK comes back into the room with a new bottle of Patrón and takes it around as each of the 15 people crammed into the suite taps it for good luck.

“We do this so nothing bad happens tonight,” he says. “It’s tradition.”

Once the bottle makes a full rotation around the suite, HBK pops it open and takes a pull. He adjusts the 52 Teardrop Woods in the mirror. The crew pokes fun at his vanity before the song starts up again, playing out of a set of hotel speakers on the nightstand. It’s called “Heartbreaker” and it’s the meanest love song I’ve ever heard, a backward letter of devotion to his girl about how many other girls he has at the ready. HBK raps along: “They can tell I’m from Detroit by the diamonds in the Cardi.”

A version of this story was previously published on GQ's website.

Zach Goldbaum is a writer and documentary filmmaker in New York City. He’s currently a producer on The Opposition w/ Jordan Klepper and previously hosted and produced Noisey on Viceland.

Editor: Julia Rubin
Copy editor: Laura Bullard


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