"We about to start an epidemic with this one," Jermaine Dupri announces at the beginning of Nelly's 2005 music video for "Grillz," the St. Louis rapper's anthem in honor of gold- and diamond-studded teeth. Nelly's impact and relevance might have faded over the past decade, but this Billboard Hot 100–topping hit was prophetic. The video, which featured more than 70 close-up grill shots, introduced mainstream America to lavish dental ornamentation. It captured the moment when bejeweled dental prostheses entered the American zeitgeist. It was an era when Johnny Dang, the Vietnamese-born, Houston-based jeweler to the stars who made a cameo in "Grillz," was selling more than 400 decorative teeth coverings a day for at least $500 a pop.
Nine years and a Great Recession have passed since "Grillz" first hit the airwaves, but Americans of all socioeconomic situations are still flashing expensive mouth jewelry. Of course, MCs like A$AP Rocky and the Flatbush Zombies have carried on the tradition of wearing and rapping about gold teeth. But grills have also maneuvered their way over to the pop charts. In the past few years we've seen them adorn the teeth of Katy Perry, Madonna, Miley Cyrus, and Beyoncé. The accessory has even appeared on the runways of New York and Paris Fashion Week and in the pages of Vogue.
Yet, as ever-present as grills may seem today, mouth bling isn't new. And it wasn't new when Nelly started "an epidemic," either. Actually, grills have been appearing, disappearing, and reappearing throughout human history in fits and spurts as civilizations have risen and fallen around the world. Tracing their story reveals threads of ancient misogyny, class warfare, and lost scientific studies and artifacts.
Anyone who's had a passing interest in the history of the grill has probably come across the dozens of shady Google search results that claim that the earliest gold dentures were made by ancient Egyptians, who used them as a form of dental care. Although this concept is pretty pervasive, it's just not true based on what we know.
"The only acceptable evidence is that revealed in the skulls themselves," writes Dr. F. Filce Leek in his 1967 study "The Practice of Dentistry in Ancient Egypt." Leek was part of the Manchester Mummy Project, which CT-scanned more than a dozen excavated mummies for a peek inside the wrapping. He found teeth so concave with cavities that he concluded many people likely died from tooth disease. Archaeologists have discovered Ancient Egyptian writings on dental procedures, but "no tooth with gold or metal," Dr. Leek writes, quoting fellow archaeologist Sir Marc Armand Ruffer. Not in pharaohs or their slaves.
People mistakenly think grills originate in ancient Egypt because archaeologists in the early 20th century found two teeth woven together by a gold wire that dated back to about 2,500 BC in Giza. Archaeologists first claimed the teeth were wired while the person was still alive, but upon further speculation, Leek found it more likely that that the teeth fell out of the Egyptian's head and he started wearing them on a gold wire around his neck. Leek suggests this man was buried with these teeth because of the Egyptian custom to be put to rest alongside items needed for the afterlife. So what is commonly thought to be the first grill was probably just a gold chain.
"People like to think Egypt started everything," says Jean MacIntosh Turfa, co-author of the upcoming book The Golden Smile: The Etruscans and the History of Dentistry. "But in [ancient times], it was purely an Etruscan phenomenon."
The Etruscans lived in Italy—eventually giving their name to the region of Tuscany—from around 800 BC to 200 BC, when they were conquered by the Roman Empire. Barely any Etruscan papyrus writing has survived, so just about all of our knowledge from the era comes from excavated graves and tombs. American archaeologists started digging in Rome in the 1800s, but almost all of the recovered gold teeth from Etruscan times were passed from researcher to researcher, brought to America, and eventually lost in the transferring process. To all but ensure their disappearance, the teeth were only written about in obscure journals. But in his 1999 study "Etruscan Gold Dental Appliances: Three Newly 'Discovered' Examples," Marshall Joseph Becker, Turfa's co-author, pieced together the available information. Archaeologists found documentation of around 20 sets of teeth woven with delicate golden wire that was about the size of a thick rubber band. The earliest of these artifacts date back to the seventh century BC.
Rich Etruscan women were the first group of people to wear what we would now call grills. "Certain high-status Etruscan women deliberately had [front teeth] removed in order to be fitted with a gold band appliance holding a replacement, or reused, tooth," Becker writes. He found three variations on the gold bonding technique used to weld rings of gold to Etruscan teeth. "It was never a dentist" who applied the gold, according to Turfa. "It was always a goldsmith. It was done for adornment. You couldn't bite an apple with these," Turfa reasons, as the gold usually held replacement teeth in place, "but it looked pretty good."
Etruscan women had more civil rights than the later Greek and Roman women—they could own property and would go to public banquets with their husbands—and their gold teeth further displayed this relative equality. "These women were showing that they had people cooking prepared foods and soft white bread for them," says Turfa. They were rich and free to do with that money what they pleased.
But that freedom, along with Etruscan language, culture, and grills, disappeared when Caesar, Cicero, and the Romans took over Italy. By 100 AD, the teeth had fallen out of fashion. Revered Roman poet Martial wrote mockingly of what he thought was women's vain tooth replacement:
"Nor do you lay aside your teeth at night any differently than you do your silk dresses, [which are] packed away in a hundred boxes... You use your teeth and hair that are bought and you are not embarrassed. What will you do about your eye, though, Laelia? They don't sell them."
For the ancient Mayan, jade was a precious stone. They carved it into art, made it into masks, and turned it into a type of grill. Throughout the classic period—from 300 AD to 900 AD—Maya kings and queens would drill holes about three millimeters in diameter into their upper teeth and fill them with round pieces of jade. The lighter, more translucent shade of green, the better. "There are two factors here: One is to enhance their physical attractiveness, and two is to differentiate their social status," says Payson Sheets, an anthropology professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who focuses on ancient societies in Mexico and Central America.
The use of jade specifically, though, was a sociopolitical statement. Green was a symbol for plant growth, agriculture, and sustenance, so by wearing it at all times, Maya royalty took on an obligation. "It's a powerful statement that the royals are responsible for bringing the rains, having the crops mature, and feeding the people," Sheets explains. Grills weren't for conspicuous consumption, but for the betterment of the society—a visual and permanent promise that everyone would be taken care of.
One class level down, Mayan professionals like architects and sculptors couldn't afford jade, but would modify their teeth by filing them because, aesthetically, Sheets says, "it was definitely a lot better than unmodified teeth. A lot better."
But similar to the way Etruscan grills ended, the Maya stopped inserting jade into their teeth after the Spanish Conquest in the 1500s. As a new leader and culture took over, grills once again disappeared.
"Humans have something in common," says Caroline Arcini, an anthropologist at the National Heritage Board in Sweden, "the desire to change their appearance—teeth included." She first realized this when archaeologists discovered that the Vikings started filing their teeth around 900 AD. "We have these tooth modifications in North and South America, Africa, and Asia, and it was really important that this kind of group identity could also be demonstrated in Europe."
In Sweden, the Vikings' teeth filings have only been found in men, and rather than elegantly decorating their teeth with gold, the Vikings filed ridges into them. It wasn't to prove social standing but to create a group identity, according to Arcini. The Vikings filed a flat area on the tooth and then made ridges starting from the top of the tooth. They might have also colored the ridges with some sort of charcoal mix to create white teeth with dark black lines.
Most ridged Viking teeth come from the island of Gotland, just southeast of Stockholm. It was a rich transit island that was an outpost for Vikings on their way east. Archaeologists have also found foreign coins and jewelry on the island. It's possible that Vikings picked up their habit from their many travels, though Arinci says, "I've been researching for 20 years and [it's been] very hard to find out if they had picked it up from somewhere else." But what she is sure about is that tooth filings have also been found in England and Scandinavian countries like Denmark, Norway, and mainland Sweden.
Humans have something in common: the desire to change their appearance—teeth included.
In Southeast Asia, gold was thought to link the individual to cosmological forces. According to ancient Filipino mythology, Melu, the creator of the world, had pure gold teeth. So Filipino mortals followed suit. The earliest evidence available shows they started decorating their teeth with the metal around 1300 AD, and also filed and even deliberately blackened their teeth.
Some areas of the Philippines had more than 100 words to describe gold, according to Father Pedro de San Buenaventura, a missionary sent to a parish in Pila, Laguna, during the Spanish colonial period. In 1613 he wrote Vocabulario de la Lengua Tagala, which became the definitive outsider examination of Tagalog culture. Buenaventura translated more than 122 entries for gold. There was ginto, meaning gold, the metal. And pusal, which is the Tagalog word for gold pegs in teeth. Other Bikol-speaking regions used the word pasac to refer to the gold driven into or wrapped around the teeth.
In Bolinao, in the Pangasinan province, teeth with gold pegs were very popular. People drilled up to nine small holes to insert the gold pegs, which formed "a delicate point, disk, or fish scale," according to a Cordillera Review study. The process was meticulous. Gold teeth were rare and found in graves with prestige burial goods, so archaeologists believe they were worn by a higher social class. When chiefdoms moved to the coastland during the beginning of the second millennium AD, they became more involved in long-distance trade with socially hierarchical societies and found a greater need to display wealth and status. There's evidence that chiefs' compounds had metal workshops, making gold teeth a permanent mark of social distinction and allowing for constant on-the-spot modifications. But by the beginning of the 1600s, public displays of wealth came to an end as the elite Filipinos were forced to relinquish their gold to the Spanish conquistadors, who, as they did among the Maya, saw tooth modification as a "barbarous practice." "Whoever files his teeth I will surely punish," Father Buenaventura wrote in Vocabulario.
Further north in the Philippines, around Kabayan, people wore fitted gold bands called chakang, which covered an entire front row of teeth. Although they made it impossible to speak, these artifacts from the past are the closest-looking gold plates to today's grills. In Kabayan, the "leading women would place a plate of gold over their teeth and remove it to eat," wrote the visiting missionary Francisco Antolin in his 1970 study Notices on the Pagan Igorots in 1789, revealing a similarity with the ancient Etruscans. Chakang were passed down as family heirlooms and survived all the way into the mid 20th century, when they were still worn during rituals.
In Dushanbe, [gold teeth] glint at you from almost every mouth. In some instances every tooth has been replaced.
Ancestors of the Mayan who now live in southeastern Mexico, Belize, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador still wear mouth ornamentation. On a trip to Guatemala that Dr. E. J. Neiburger wrote about in his 2012 piece in the Journal of the Massachusetts Dental Society, he estimated that about 65 percent of Guatemalans wore some sort of gold dental decoration. In Central America, local dentists advertise their names next to pictures not of pearly whites but of flashy gold teeth, which have replaced jade as the decoration of choice. "Having a gold tooth is a sign that you've got enough resources to afford it—and it's shiny," adds Payton Sheets. Gold teeth are commonly worn by native Latin Americans throughout the region. Costa Ricans, who aren't Maya, have a saying that roughly translates to, "That's as terrible as a Guanacaste resident without a gold tooth."
But emigrating north changed this outlook. Neiburger, an American dentist, tells of his experience with Central American patients who make appointments to replace gold teeth with what they call "American crowns," or white teeth. "Many of these immigrants will give up their gold in their attempt to acculturate to the American lifestyle," following suit with the long trend of one culture conquering another.
Maya descendants aren't the only ones influenced by the mainstream West to remove the gold. Tajikistan, a landlocked country in Central Asia, was once part of the former Soviet Union, where dental care was free. Gold was the cheapest way to fill and fix a cavity, so it became common, and then fashionable. "In Dushanbe, the capital of this desperately impoverished nation, they still glint at you from almost every mouth. In some instances every tooth has been replaced," J. J. Fergusson wrote in a 1997 Independent article.
But after the Soviet Union fell and Tajiks were allowed to leave the country, "their value as a status symbol has declined, especially among the young," Professor Omar Tairairov, the country's chief dentist, told the Independent. He blamed Western videos, but it proved more psychological than that. Matluba Mamadjanova went to an American language teachers' conference in Athens and came back changed. "There were hundreds of people there and I was the only one with gold teeth," she told Ferguson. "They kept looking at me."
What's funny is that right as the Central Americans and Tajiks Westernized their mouths, mainstream Americans were picking up on the more opulent alternative. A reverse cultural appropriation was taking place. Just one year before the Independent published that article about changing views on gold teeth, Johnny Dang opened up shop in Houston. It was the United States of America's turn to shine.
By the late 1970s gold teeth had started popping up in mostly black neighborhoods of New York City. "I was a kid growing up between Fort Greene and Bedford-Stuyvesant when I first noticed grills on some of the West Indian people in Bed-Stuy," says Akintola Hanif, editor-in-chief of Hycide, a photography magazine dedicated to subculture, art, and conflict. "They would have one or two gold teeth."
Those were never stylized, though. In the 1970s parts of the West Indies, and Jamaica in particular, went through a slow economic period, and there wasn't much money for dental care, so gold teeth it was. Shabba Ranks had "one gold tooth" not because of fashion but because he probably didn't floss regularly. In the late 70s and the 80s, people from the West Indies started moving to New York, bringing along their gold teeth and sending money back home for proper dental care.
The same was true in Vietnam. When Johnny Dang was growing up there, the only people he witnessed sporting gold teeth were his grandparents. "The solid gold was to cover teeth, but not for fashion. It was to protect teeth," he says in his heavily accented English. "They put a gold crown so it would last forever." Dang, on the other hand, has only made a handful of permanent grills over his 18-year career.
But for West Indian immigrants and native New Yorkers alike, gold teeth became a fashion statement. "I started seeing everyday guys and girls, drug dealers, and hood stars wearing them," Hanif says. New Yorkers called them gold fronts back then, and many fashion-forward kids had a pair as a way to show their wealth, like the ancient Maya and Etruscans before them. By the mid 80s, Slick Rick was wearing grills in videos like "La Di Da Di." Big Daddy Kane and Kool G Rap followed soon after. With rap, grills grew into a look for the rich and famous. By the 90s, Flava Flav would make them ubiquitous. Grills became the visual aid to literally depict the exaggeration of hip-hop. It was the noun to flossing's verb.
So grills made their way from the north down to Atlanta and Houston, where Paul Wall and Johnny Dang's grills businesses are based, respectively.
Dang started making grills when he opened his jewelry shop in 1996 because there was a demand. "They just said, 'I want gold teeth.' So I make it for them," he says. Dang rakes in about $8 million a year wholesaling grills to two dozen jewelers as far as Japan and Italy, and hand-delivering them around America to rappers from Chief Keef to Lil Jon and Riff Raff.
Dang's grills only take about two days to construct. It starts with a mouth mold that buyers can make themselves. For online orders, Dang ships the mold out to customers with instructions. Once he gets it back, the mold is filled with gold and diamonds within two days. Some less high-tech jewelers will even fill the mold while you wait.
Dang offers a wide variety of grill designs, and he's constantly innovating the process. His latest invention is the very high-tech engraved grill, which is so popular he's ramping production up to 40 a day at $70 per tooth. He also sells the Princess—what Kanye wears—and the Baguette, which are named based on the cut. Jewels in the Baguette look long and flat, while the Princess has diamonds protruding in little 3D triangles. For an even higher-end piece, there's also an invisible binding option, where it looks like the diamonds are bound to each other and not the gold behind them. Most of Dang's fanciest grills sell between $5,000 and $20,000. The rest of the grill-wearing world, who can't get their hands on high-end pieces like Dang's, pay somewhere between $90 to $150 per gold tooth.
They were doubtless gentlemen of the highest class of their day, otherwise they would not have gold fillings.
As Nelly announced his "platinum and white rose, traditional gold / I'm changing grills every day like Jay changes clothes," grills slipped into American consciousness. Now, famous actors wear them on the red carpet, Olympians wear them during award ceremonies, and rich high school girls wear them to prom.
Today, grills project the definition of American wealth and social status—of what it means to live the American dream. While modern celebrities and the wealthy can afford to invest and hide their money away to protect it, they also feel the need to carry their money on their teeth to remind themselves and everyone else just how successful they are.
Back in 1913, archaeologists praised the Ecuadoran grill-wearing 1 percenters for this very outlook. "They were doubtless gentlemen of the highest class of their day, otherwise they would not have gold fillings," wrote Marshall Howard Saville of his findings.
A hundred years later, Kanye West put it a little differently but essentially the same: "[There's] just certain stuff that rock stars are supposed to do."
Follow Lauren on Twitter