Grillz: An oral history of a fly accessory

When I was growing up, there were a few indicators of one’s wealth in my community: A fly car, a decked-out wardrobe, a coveted designer bag or swaggy jewelry. Not all jewelry was the same, though: You had chains, bracelets, watches (Rollies if you’re a baller) and rings on every finger. But growing up, there was one thing I couldn’t wait to own: A grill piece.

To me, a grill set symbolized being a fly girl, the definition of “flossy” where you easily could show others that you were able to afford a piece of gold in your mouth. They somehow were both a hood aesthetic and a representation of prestige, a dichotomy many can’t mentally hold together.

We didn’t see ourselves reflected in glossy magazines – but who cared about Vogue if the hood thought you were fly?

As I got older, I saw grill culture become the latest accessory for some of today’s mainstream pop stars, as the rise of hip-hop and rap in the ‘90s and ‘00s stepped over cultural lines into the mainstream. 

Grills, or grillz, didn’t start with Miley Cyrus or Katy Perry. Don’t worry, this is not a story about appropriation … but we should respect origins of a fashion item that’s perceived one way on Black and Latinx communities and completely different in white communities.

There was Nelly and his 2005 single, “Grillz,” which took the accessory to newly surged heights in the ‘00s, but before then, there was Slick Rick who brought grillz to the forefront of culture in the late ‘80s.

Credit: VEVO

The bedazzled mouthpiece has been a staple in southern culture for years, many of us seeing dirty south rappers like Slick Rick, Paul Wall, Pimp C and Lil’ Wayne glamorize an accessory that had a long-held association with pimps, drug dealers and thugs.

Johnny Dang, the Vietnamese-born, Houston-based jeweler who made a cameo in “Grillz,” shortly after began selling more than 400 grillz a day for at least $500 a pop. In 2014, Dang told Vice that he pulls in about $8 million a year wholesaling grillz to jewelers as far as Japan and Italy, as well as hand-delivering custom sets to rappers.

There’s money in dental work.

However, the thought that grillz as only markers of one who is “ghetto,” “hood,” “poor,” and “uncultured” is downright laughable. Grillz are the ultimate sign of wealth.

Some believe the first grill sighting was as far back as 2,500 BC in Giza, but Dr. F. Filce Leek, in his 1967 study “The Practice of Dentistry in Ancient Egypt,” suggests that that particular sighting was actually an isolated incident where the teeth fell out of the Egyptian’s head and they began wearing them on a gold wire around their neck.

Not a grill, but a fly gold chain I’d say.

Nowadays, archaeologists believe that the first identifiable trace of what we know to be grillz traces back to seventh century BC, when documentation of around 20 sets of teeth woven with delicate golden wire were found in the mouths of Etruscans who lived in Italy from around 800 BC to 200 BC.

These examples show how they mounted extracted teeth, minus their roots, on gold bridges which would then be mounted between good teeth. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

“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,” Marshall Joseph Becker wrote in his 1999 study “Etruscan Gold Dental Appliances: Three Newly ‘Discovered’ Examples”

Then there were the Mayans, who would drill holes into their upper teeth and fill them with round pieces of jade, from 300 AD to 900 AD. The jade embellishments were not only a fashion statement but a political one as well, used to differentiate class systems and social statuses, according to Payson Sheets, an anthropology professor at the University of Colorado. 

You see, grillz were part of vanity but also something much bigger – in Mayan days, the color and gradient of the gems welcomed wealth and prosperity. Even today, not all grillz are the same, and those with extra disposable income may even lace their dentures with additional diamonds, gold trimmings or stone.

In the 1400s in the Philippines, people wore fitted gold bands called chakang, which covered the entire front row of teeth. In Kabayan, a municipality located in the province of Benguet, Philippines, the “leading women would place a plate of gold over their teeth and remove it to eat,” wrote Francisco Antolin in his 1970 study “Notices on the Pagan Igorots in 1789.” And like anything that’s perceived as wealth, the chakangs were passed down as family heirlooms all the way into the mid 20th century, when they were still worn during rituals.

I could go on and on about the extensive history of grillz, but you get the point. Grill culture has been around for centuries and has always been used for larger cultural topics, not just for vanity purposes. 

Fast forward to the late 1970s, gold teeth began appearing in mostly Black and urban neighborhoods in New York City, quickly blossoming into a fashion statement for everyone, from regular kids to the neighborhood dope man.

Like the Great Migration, grill culture spread from the north down to the south, where places like Atlanta and Houston welcomed the exaggerated fashion embellishment with open arms. Soon, rappers like Lil’ Jon, Paul Wall, Flava Flav and more made grillz as important of an accessory as their diamond necklaces, fresh sneakers or iced-out jewelry.

Credit: Getty Images

During a 2011 interview on Jimmy Kimmel, Lil Wayne said he paid over $150,000 for his. Apparently, Birdman dropped $500,000 on his grill. Whew, y’all.

Today, celebrities from all over the world rock their gold fronts, whether it’s a whole top row, whole bottom row, both or fangs. From Beyoncé to Cardi B, you’ll spot the popular accessory in an assortment of colors, cuts and levels of fly. 

While some may argue that Black culture doesn’t subscribe to conspicuous consumption, I argue that we are actually upholding a legacy and rich practice that has followed generation after generation. For a group of people who have systemically never had the opportunity to amass generational wealth, it’s easy to understand how we would find other alternatives, like gold, to pass down.

Maybe it’s our flamboyant critique of the racial wealth gap, or the metaphor of having a piece of the American dream for a people who the dream was never promised to. Maybe it’s an homage to enslaved ancestors, a reclamation of power to show that we are, indeed, kings and queens.

Of course, maybe it’s just the way you want to accessorize and size-up your ‘fit.

Grillz may set you back a hefty amount if you’re looking for long-term wear, but that’s because there’s a huge difference between a custom fit and a one-size-fits-all (which is never the case). However, there are options out there depending on your budget and vibe.

Here are a few grill options you can purchase until you save up to buy some big drip:

Shop: 14K Gold 5X Layered 6 Teeth Grillz, $19.99 (Orig. $49.98+)

Credit: Etsy

Shop: Kim K Bar Grillz, $259.99+

Credit: Etsy

Shop: White Gold Grillz, $109.99+

Credit: Etsy

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