How Sauce Gardner’s friendship with ‘Al the Jeweler’ led to Aaron Rodgers’ new bling

How Sauce Gardner’s friendship with ‘Al the Jeweler’ led to Aaron Rodgers’ new bling
Video aaron rodgers necklace

TOTOWA, N.J. — Some days after practice, Sauce Gardner leaves the Jets facility in Florham Park and drives 20 minutes to a jewelry store in a strip mall, two doors down from an Applebee’s. He walks into a store called the Jewelry Expo, and heads to the middle station, at Labelle Jewelry, where a desk and office chair are surrounded by dozens of photos of NFL players smiling with a Turkish man from New Jersey. There are two humongous safes behind the desk, and a large carpet on the floor with a two-letter name: Al. His name is everywhere.

Gardner spends a lot of time here. So do many of his teammates. This is where the idea for Gardner’s viral “SAUCE” chain necklace was mocked up, developed and created. He came here when he had an idea to gift his new quarterback with some flashy jewelry. Last week, Gardner was about to present Aaron Rodgers with his new chain, featuring a No. 8 pendant in Jets colors, when he FaceTimed his friend who made it for him: Elber Bekdas, better known as “Al the Jeweler.”

“You ready? We’re about to do it now.”

The room was full of cameras. The moment quickly went viral on social media.

“Then, my phone blew up,” Bekdas said.

https://t.co/U9oZUiOoaA pic.twitter.com/YRvbpNK8Cb

— New York Jets (@nyjets) July 22, 2023

But it was more than just a viral moment for Bekdas. The root of the Rodgers necklace came out of a friendship the 35-year-old jeweler forged over the last year with Gardner, starting when he upgraded the chain Gardner wore to the 2022 NFL Draft, where the Jets made the cornerback the No. 4 pick. After he moved to New Jersey, the two linked up. Gardner helped him go viral again in April on an NFL Network telecast, shouting out “Al the Jeweler” on air. That led to friends he hadn’t spoken to since high school reaching out. His Instagram blew up. Business is booming — and it was a long journey getting here.

Bekdas’ family moved from Turkey to New Jersey when he was 2, and they’ve been in the jewelry business ever since. Bekdas would help out around the store after school when he was 10, and as he aged, he never really wanted to stray from the family business. Bekdas dropped out of business school after a year to work with the family. His parents already had their own longtime clients, and he wanted his own. So eight years ago, a 27-year-old Bekdas started messaging NFL players on Instagram, trying to get their attention, to look at his work — which, he insists, is better than any of the big-name brands to which professional athletes are often drawn.

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“I just let my work do the talking,” Bekdas said. “You can compare my work to anybody’s work and you’re going to see the difference. … I’m a perfectionist. If it’s not perfect, you’re not going to wear it. I even told these guys, if it comes out and I don’t like it, I’m redoing the whole thing.”

None of those NFL players would listen, though, and he gets why: “I didn’t really have a name, and with jewelry, you can’t just trust anybody.”

Many jewelers, Bekdas said, see athletes become millionaires and celebrities at a young age and then fail to put in the research before they drop thousands of dollars on jewelry. There are plenty of eager jewelers waiting to take advantage of their naivety. Bekdas never wanted to be like that. When he failed to reach NFL players, he started working with some college athletes. Eventually, his work caught the attention of NFL running back Cordarrelle Patterson, playing for the Vikings at the time. Patterson repped his jewelry and recommended him to teammates, like Stefon Diggs — both remain devoted clients and close friends. “They call (Diggs) a dog, so I made him a big bone,” Bekdas said. He FaceTimed with Patterson on Wednesday, catching up on life.

Now, Bekdas has nearly 75,000 followers on Instagram and more than 300 clients in the NFL. Many stop by his store when they play the Giants or Jets, or he’ll drive to their team hotel, usually in Jersey City. Some fly in during the offseason to see him, too. Everything is made in-house, Bekdas said, with diamond-setters, designers and polishers all working for him. Most custom-made pieces take three to four weeks to deliver.

He sees his Jets clients most often, as they’re just a short drive away. He works with plenty of Giants, too, like defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence and left tackle Andrew Thomas. He’s made watches for wide receiver Garrett Wilson. Breece Hall debuted a diamond-encrusted chain with his initials in the locker room after a game last season, made by Bekdas. Mecole Hardman had wanted a chain with jets since he played for the Chiefs. When he got signed by the Jets, Hardman told Bekdas: Let’s do it. The final product: a chain with two small jet planes and one big one. The latter includes a “cockpit” Hardman can lift to show a picture of himself in a Jets jersey. In total, it’s a 90-carat diamond necklace.

.@MecoleHardman4 how do I get one of those? pic.twitter.com/f5z6H3ov1P

— Woody Johnson (@woodyjohnson4) July 19, 2023

“I’m basically the Jets’ personal jeweler,” Bekdas said.

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Gardner’s “SAUCE” chain was even more — and it also included a diamond-encrusted bottle of “sauce.” After Gardner was drafted by the Jets, Bekdas got in touch with him. Gardner wanted to meet him before they started working together. So he drove to Totowa.

“I’m not one of those people that’s quick to spend money,” Gardner said. “I make sure everything makes sense. So I saw he’s a good dude, that he wasn’t just talking.”

Gardner wanted to upgrade the “SAUCE” chain he wore to the NFL Draft, and so they brainstormed some ideas, Bekdas mocked it up and then delivered it. The original from draft night had VVS diamonds with regular round stones, Gardner said. The new one was remade with emerald-cut diamonds, making the letters in “SAUCE” easier to see. On the back of the pendant, there’s an inscription: “Juice is temporary, Sauce is forever.” Gardner wore the chain during an interview with NFL Network in April and analyst Daniel Jeremiah shouted it out, asking who made it.

Al the Jeweler.

“He didn’t have to do that,” Bekdas said. “He knows how much it can affect me. I obviously take good care of him, and he appreciates that. One hand washes the other, I love that about him.”

That’s when the idea for the Rodgers chain first came to light. Gardner and Bekdas had already discussed coming up with something to gift Rodgers after he was traded to the Jets, but it wasn’t until Jeremiah said of Rodgers, on air: “I gotta believe he’s got no jewelry, so let’s get Al the Jeweler to dial up No. 8 for Aaron Rodgers.”

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“It’s been in the works for a minute,” Gardner said. “But when we got to talking about it, we started brainstorming ideas. It’s Aaron, he doesn’t want something that’s too, too flashy. We didn’t want to have anything too big — Cuban links, eight pendant, none of that stuff. Just something calm.”

Bekdas suggested a “tennis chain,” which is a thin strand of continuous diamonds or gems.

Jeremiah’s suggestion helped them hone in on the No. 8 pendant, also not too big. They finished the final product a month ago, 15 carats of VS diamonds and emeralds. As a bonus: Gardner also had a chain made up for team owner Woody Johnson, a Jets logo with his name under it, in diamonds.

Rodgers admitted flashy jewelry isn’t usually in his oeuvre, but he seemed to enjoy the gift.

“I love Sauce,” Rodgers said. “It’s not exactly my style, but I will be repping that, more than once. I have a strict gift policy — I gotta wear it at least once.”

Even now, after all his success, Bekdas couldn’t believe Rodgers was talking about something he created.

“It’s always a good time with these guys, and now I’m finally able to display my work. It’s like you’re on the bench and waiting to get called in to play to show your talent,” Bekdas said. “I always told myself when I was first starting, I had a lot of obstacles along my way, but I never gave up. I always had the passion for it and I was like, you know what, nothing is going to stop me. That’s why I’m always going to be humble about it — because that’s how I started.”

Now, he has Jets players hanging out with him in Totowa.

“I always remember the days,” Bekdas said, “where I wasn’t getting any responses.”

(Top illustration: Ray Orr / The Athletic)

(Photo of Sauce Gardner and Albert Bekdas courtesy of Bekdas; Gardner and Aaron Rodgers: Elsa / Getty Images)

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