The History of the Grill: When & Where It Started, Where It Is Headed & More (Guide)
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Table of Contents
- Ancient Roots
- 1970s: Grillz Reach NYC
- 1980s: Grillz Hit the Rap Scene
- 1990s: Brands are Built
- 2000s: Grillz Go Mainstream
- 2020s: Grillz in the Spotlight
- The Future of Grillz
Grillz are having a moment. Whether you’ve seen a picture of your favorite celebrity showing off some dental bling or noticed someone out and about with a fashion-forward grill in their mouth, you may be wondering about these trending dental attachments. Like, for starters, what is a grill?
Grillz, or fronts, are decorative coverings for the teeth. They’re usually made of gold or silver, although other materials, like precious stones and enamel, are growing in popularity too.
Often, they’re “blinged out” or bejeweled with diamonds or jewels, or a diamond-dust finish. Some also feature cuts or etched designs for a dramatic effect.
Most grillz are removable. They snap over one tooth or multiple teeth. Some grillz are more permanent and applied as a crown or permanent tooth cover.
With celebrities like Beyoncé, Katy Perry, and Justin Bieber showing off their grillz at events and on social media, it’s clear that these oral accessories have reached the mainstream and are ready for some time in the spotlight. But where did grillz start?
Random internet pages and word-of-mouth folklore have long credited the Egyptians with creating grillz due to a rumored discovery of two gold teeth connected by wire. However, the gold bar that was discovered in association with teeth in Egypt and then linked to ancient grill pieces was more likely than not part of an actual gold chain or necklace, not a mouthpiece.
Grillz instead seem to have most likely originated in Italy, where they were crafted by the Etruscans. The Etruscans existed from around 800 BC to 200 BC before they were overtaken by the Roman Empire. Gold appliances were found from this civilization, and it appears these appliances were molded and then stretched over original or replacement teeth.
Whether these devices were used for practical or adornment purposes remains unclear. However, historians see the possibility that aesthetics appeared to be a major concern of these devices, which also appeared to be worn only by women.
Mayans also experimented with grill-like tooth décor during their classical era from 500 to 1000 AD. After drilling holes in teeth, they would use a paste-like substance to attach the green precious stone jade.
Historians believe there may have been different reasons for this depending on the jade-wearers social status. Some may have worn it as part of a ritual. The royal and wealthy wore the tooth décor as a symbol of status and wealth, but also as a statement of responsibility. Jade was known to be symbolic of agriculture, and the royals wore it as a reminder of their duty to feed the people.
For both of these cultures, the tooth décor stopped once the population was overtaken by force. The Mayans were eventually conquered by Spanish conquistadors. This history (of a culture being stifled or even attempted to be erased by colonial force) may play a part in why grillz would eventually become so popular in rap and hip-hop — cultures that were long considered controversial and perhaps not given adequate respect by the mainstream.
1970s: grillz reach NYC
Gold has long been used as a material for tooth coverings because of its durability. However, in the U.S., gold teeth and fillings became obsolete with the use of porcelain, resin, and other metals. In other countries, however, like Jamaica, the West Indies, the Dominican Republic, and Vietnam, gold dental work remains popular and sometimes serves as a status of wealth or style.
It was in the mouths of immigrants from these countries that gold teeth started appearing in the U.S. and catching the attention of others, especially in diverse Bronx and Brooklyn neighborhoods in New York City. They started becoming a fashion statement of street style, symbolizing the wearer was both “from the hood” and had the cash and freedom to show off costly tooth décor.
In 1975, disco queen and style icon Grace Jones appeared in Vogue Hommes with a top-and-bottom solid gold grill. It was the grill’s first entry into high fashion but not its last.
1980s: grillz hit the rap scene
By the 1980s, grillz were a part of rap and hip hop culture. “O.G” rappers like Slick Rick, Big Daddy Kane, and Cool G Rap wore them. Atlanta rappers Kilo Ali and Raheem the Dream also popularized “fronts.”
One of the most important pioneers in grillz, Eddie “Mouth Full of Golds” Plein, became a fronts icon in the 1980s. Plein was living in Brooklyn but visiting his home country of Suriname (one of the smallest countries in South America) when he broke his tooth and was offered a gold cover. He wasn’t ready to commit, but the offer made him think of the statement-piece jewelry, like watches and big gold chains, that he saw in the hip hop community.
He returned to NYC, attended dental school, and began offering grillz out of a pawn shop. He hit it big when rapper Just-Ice bought a grill from him and wore it on promotional materials. Before long, rappers began appearing for grillz of their own, and Plein opened his own shop, Famous Eddie’s, in Jamaica, Queens.
Plein’s client list would go on to include Jay-Z, Nas, and Flava Flav, whose loud and ever-present grill was one of the most famous fronts of the era. However, as the popularity of gold grills grew, so did the always-hungry New York City competition.
Plein was being copied by neighborhood vendors and refused to lower his prices to match the market. By 1989, he shut down Famous Eddie’s and moved to Virginia.
1990s: brands are built
In 1992, Plein set up shop (Eddie’s Famous Gold Teeth) in Atlanta, where his business boomed with the help of rappers Outkast, Lil Jon, and Ludacris and their ever-flashier grills.
Houston rapper Paul Wall began customizing grillz, and jewelers in the Oakland area made their mark as well.
In 1996, Johnny Dang, a native of Vietnam who would become arguably the most famous of all grillz artists, opened up a shop in Houston in 1996. Dang was familiar with gold teeth because his grandparents wore them, but it was the demand for jeweled grillz that inspired Dang to start his wildly successful grill empire.
2000s: grillz go mainstream
Grillz were popular in the 1990s among rappers and some athletes, but it was in the 2000s that the trend really began exploding.
In 2002, Paul Wall and Johnny Dang joined forces and opened Johnny Dang & Co. in Houston, where they would service some of the top names in rap and hip hop with the flashiest and most elaborate grillz to have hit the streets.
The music video for “Grillz,” a Grammy-nominated hit single from beloved St. Louis rapper Nelly, was a highlight for grills in popular mainstream culture. They had made their mark. Because of the popular video, which features over 50 grills, cameos by Paul Wall and Johnny Dang, and plenty of jaw-dropping bling, just about everyone now knew what a grill was.
2020s: grillz in the spotlight at award shows, on influencers & in high fashion
If the earlier era of the 2000s saw grillz rising, the 2020s may be a time of grillz expanding.
Grillz are still extremely popular among rap and hip hop stars as well as athletes, and they’re often more blinged out than ever, with shimmering diamond-dust finishes, blinding trillion cuts, and diamonds and gold galore. Rappers and hip hop artists like A$AP Rocky and Travis Scott are keeping the blinged-out grillz tradition alive and well. They’re also experimenting with more looks and styles that push boundaries.
In recent years, however, grillz are making their presence known in high fashion and the art and entertainment world as well. The trend is likely due in part to the popularity of social media. Celebrities can easily share their grillz with the world through Instagram, making other influencers and entertainers want to jump in and express their dental décor style too.
Musicians like Pharrell Williams, Dua Lipa, Lizzo, Miley Cyrus, and Madonna have been showing off adorned teeth on social media and at events and award shows, as have models Bella Hadid and Cara Delevingne. Grillz have appeared on runways and at NYC fashion week. Vogue has profiled elusive French grillz artist Dolly Cohen.
For some, however, the excitement of grillz is less about the status and celebrity appeal and more about reconnecting (or reclaiming) a part of their culture. With the stigma gone, some see a chance to explore the origins of grillz as an authentic expression of unique street culture.
Others see an opportunity to take grillz to new territory altogether. Artists are expressing their passion into grillz that look different than the styles fronts have become synonymous with. In place of bling or deep cuts, they’re using raw gemstones and unexpected shapes and palettes in an art-forward creative process.
The future of grillz
It's uncertain where grillz are headed.
Will they become a must-have accessory for the fashion-forward? Will art-forward pieces dominate the scene? Are bling-encrusted smiles soon to become a staple on the runway? Or will the trend fizzle and grills return to their home of underground street couture?
Along with a symbol of status and opulence, there is perhaps a rebellious spirit in the history of grillz. Just as the Roman Empire and the Spanish conquistadors looked down on the dental accessories they found on the conquered, considering them perhaps uncivilized or ritualistic, many in the mainstream would first see grillz and dismiss them as garish, strange, and even tacky.
Still, those with a passion for the culture recognized the beauty. And they continue to wear and create them with pride and style.
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