The Sparkling Saga of Grillz
If there’s one accessory that’s synonymous with contemporary hip hop culture, it’s grillz. The eye-catching dental jewellery, also known as ‘fronts’ or ‘golds’, has long been favoured by rappers and, in recent times, by pop divas and models alike to signal to the stacks of cash they stand on. Spotted on everyone from A$AP Rocky to Cara Delevigne, grillz aren’t just about conspicuous consumption. They require the wearer to have a certain self-assuredness, a certain chutzpah, if you will. They are not for those who don’t like being the centre of attention. There’s something about quite literally flashy teeth that announces “I have arrived” better than anything else.
Whether set in classic yellow gold or more daring styles involving everything from baguette diamonds to the Louis Vuitton monogram, grillz aren’t meant to be worn for longer than a few hours. High-end grillz are custom made for the wearer, who is required to bite down on a soft material to create a unique mold. More affordable readymade options, even available online, are adjustable and claim to fit any size and shape of teeth. Regardless of the health implications of regularly wearing grillz (plaque, gum disease and bad breath, anyone?), they continue to be a must-have for anyone trying to become someone, especially in the American hip hop circuit.
In 1985, Slick Rick sported a pair in his video for ‘La Di Da Di’, and is credited with bringing grillz into popular consciousness. Unsurprisingly, many before him were enamoured with the idea of teeth ornamentation. Different cultures had their own version of proto-grillz, for the lack of a better term.
We've always loved bling
In fact, this story starts all the way back in the 7th century BCE with the Etruscan people of present-day Italy. There is evidence of around 20 sets of delicate teeth, woven with gold wire, which were worn by upper class ladies for purely cosmetic reasons.
Archaeologist Marshall Joseph Becker in his study Etruscan Gold Dental Appliances: Three Newly 'Discovered' Examples (1999)
These teeth made biting and chewing very difficult. So they also went to show that these women had others preparing soft foods exclusively for them, functioning as yet another status symbol.
On the other side of the world, ancient Mayan royalty were drilling holes into their teeth to have them fitted with circular pieces of jade from around 300 AD to 900 AD. The precious stone held a lot of significance in Mayan society, symbolising green harvests, plant growth and life. Hence, jade teeth were not just about vain flexing, but was also a statement on the part of the kings and queens, a visible commitment to feeding everyone and taking care of their people.
Turns out, drilling holes in teeth to fill them with precious materials was also fashionable among the high society in the Pangasinan province in the Philippines. They took after Melu, the creator of the world according to Filipino mythology, who had pure gold teeth.
Evidence dating back to 1300 AD shows gold pegs which were inserted in the teeth by nobility. It is possible that they had round-the-clock access to metal workshops.
Around the northern region of Kabayan, fitted gold bands called chakang for front teeth were popular. Chakang holds the closest resemblance to modern-day grillz, and had a similar function as a signifier of wealth and class. They were passed down as family heirlooms (not to be judgemental, but damn, that’s gross), and some pieces are in ritualistic use to this day.
Gold crowns or permanent gold teeth pre-date the grillz that hood stars know and love. It’s difficult to say exactly when metal replacements for pearly whites became a thing in the US of A, but one theory stands out. During the dark period in America’s history when slavery was widespread, slaves were obviously denied dental care. However, the chattel owners allowed for rudimentary surgery to be performed on their most indispensable slaves. Their cavities were filled with copper, tin or bronze, and over time the sparkle in their mouths came to signal their value to the master and their higher status among the slave population.
Fast forward to the 20th century, gold became a mainstay of dental practice in several countries around the globe due to its durability and non-reactive nature. From Guatemala to Tajikistan, gold fillings and crowns graced the teeth of many, transcending class boundaries due to high accessibility. Many immigrants to the USA, especially those from the West Indies, took their gold fillings with them. While some felt like their glinting gnashers made them an oddity, grillz simultaneously picked up heat in predominantly black neighbourhoods in 80s NYC.
The role of the diaspora community in popularising grillz can’t be overstated.
Two names that repeatedly come up are that of Eddie Plein and Johnny Dang. Both grew up seeing gold caps fitted on the teeth of elder family members entirely out of need.
Plein, whose family originally belonged to Suriname, achieved legend status in the hip hop community for his iconic grillz shop in Atlanta called Eddie’s Famous Gold Teeth. Plugging the demand in the 80s, he became a pioneer with his removable grillz.
Further west, Johnny Dang (who emigrated from Vietnam), climbed the ranks in the world of jewellery making, establishing his own shop in Houston, Texas. Now a celebrated grillz master, Dang is known for his custom diamond sets catering to a clientele that includes Snoop Dogg, Post Malone and Megan Thee Stallion. In a Vice video, he declares, “We don’t buy diamonds by carat. We buy diamonds by kilo, baby!”
While Nelly’s 2005 track ‘Grillz’ helped popularise this kind of opulence, grillz have gone high fashion in recent years. Those who want the look but also don’t wish to hide all of their teeth enamel go for open face grillz. Understated styles have been sported by the likes of Rihanna and Miley Cyrus. Dentist-turned-jeweller Dolly Cohen is known for creating many of these artsy fronts, and is also behind Beyoncé’s Ivy Park X Adidas custom grillz. There’s something so uniquely American about wearing a brand’s logo on your teeth in gold.
Material is not a limitation though, as exhibited by California-based Lillian Shalom who created custom opal grillz for Erykah Badu in 2019.
As technology improves and the link between wealth and taste is solidified further, creatives are turning grillz into tiny canvases. Just look at this recent modern art inspired set by Israeli-American jeweller Gabby Elan.
With increased accessibility and the blurring of lines between different cultures and their fashions, it's probably safe to say that grillz are here to stay, and while they're at it, take on many different forms as people project what affluence means to them right onto their teeth.