The little things make an outfit. Growing up in the south, no outfit was complete without a noteworthy accessory. A bulky belt buckle with messages scrolling across in LED lights, or mismatched laces, carefully threaded through pristine Air Force Ones are just a few of those details. Across the country, grills and gold teeth also fall under the list of accents that add a major glow to any ensemble. There hasn’t been a time in the past several decades when gold teeth weren’t relevant. In the 1970’s, my great-grandfather gifted an open face gold cap to my mother’s mother. Then, nearly 35 years later, rapper Nelly dedicated an entire song to grills. But these days, Black women are stepping away from the conventional slugs, and rocking rare crystal caps and unique gap fillers. They are making grills all their own and progressing conversations about them, too.
I spoke with New York City based grill designer, Helen Harris, the founder of Helen with the Gold Teeth. She has a background in engineering, and began making custom golds in April 2019. Harris approaches each set with the mindset that she’s creating high art. When asked about the influx of support from Black women, she matter-of-factly said “Black women put me on.” “When I first started making them, the folks who came to me..were [my] friends…but then, when I started hearing from people I didn’t know, they were Black women…I think it’s just the connection there, the sisterhood,” she said.
It’s no secret that gold teeth are experiencing a unique resurgence. Helen remarked that popularity wise, they exploded in the early 2000’s. At the time, makers fit customers for grills at the mall. Customers were more interested in filing their teeth down for permanent fronts. But now, people are able to conduct grill transactions online. This enables customers to circumvent any social anxieties that they may have. Accessibility is undoubtedly an important component of this come back.
Danielle “Jazz” Noel is a Black photographer who is making people consider a purpose of grills beyond fashion. Danielle’s thesis for Columbia University focused on grills and dental hygiene in the Black community. The daughter of a dentist, Danielle shared that gold teeth actually have health advantages, including halting further tooth decay. Additionally, poor oral hygiene, or cavities, lead to other physical issues. Cavities specifically can cause peridontis, which can lead to heart disease. So not only is Danielle documenting the subculture, she’s also providing research on why some began wearing grills in the first place.
Musicians, like Leikeli47, bbymutha, and Dallas native (Liv).e, are just a few of the professional women proudly sporting grills today. When asked about current perceptions of grills, (Liv).e said, “People are more open to it..” “I feel like it was taboo to have a grill, or people looked down on it [thinking they’re only] for certain types of [Black] people.” Classism has certainly played a role in the way women with grills are thought of – in Chicago Tribune‘s 2002 piece on gold teeth and job opportunities, multiple women admitted that they felt discriminated against because of their dental jewelry.
The more gold teeth become seen and respected as fashion statements and dental protectors, the more comfortable Black women will feel being themselves.