For some, gold and silver tooth caps are a recent phenomenon. If you’re like me, your adolescent brain was probably bowled over by the dental opulence on display in the music video for Nelly’s 2005 hit “Grillz.” The iced-out era of popular rap that it neatly encapsulated has served as a touchstone for the young, style-fluent generation fueling the current uptick in custom tooth jewelry. But blinged-out teeth were a thing long before Paul Wall’s mouth was “lookin’ somethin’ like a disco ball,” before, even, Grace Jones’s gilded mug graced the cover of Vogue Hommes in 1975. The history of rocking gold teeth is as varied and divergent as it is flashy, as personal as it is brilliant.
In actuality, the history of adorning one’s teeth with hardware goes way back, well beyond that seemingly ancient Nelly hit. Archaeologists report discovering sets of teeth wound with gold wire in central Italy that are believed to date as far back as the seventh century B.C. They were likely primitive dentures belonging to the wealthy women of ancient Etruria. The Maya were known to drill holes in their teeth for the express purpose of implanting circular pieces of jade in them.
In both of those cases, the teeth-adorning custom was brought to an end by an invading colonial force that deemed it garish. And while neither the Roman Empire nor Spanish conquistadors have much to say about how people dress anymore, this kind of drip policing in the name of decorum and respectability mirrors something many told me they were combating by wearing their fronts.
“Before bling culture, before hip-hop culture, there was salsa, and all those salseros were super blinged out,” filmmaker Djali Brown-Cepeda explained to me. She was raised in upper Manhattan and the Bronx’s Soundview neighborhood by a Dominican mother and a Black and Indigenous father, and she’s the mind behind Nuevayorkinos and BLK THEN, digital archives dedicated to cataloging New York City’s Latinx and Black cultural heritage. Each of the projects’ Instagrams is filled with family photos and personal narratives that tell the story of a New York that is becoming harder and harder to recognize. There are pictures of Puerto Rican teens hanging in pre-gentrified South Williamsburg, a dapper group of Black partygoers in ’50s Brooklyn, and even Brown-Cepeda herself visiting the Graffiti Hall of Fame in East Harlem with her father in the early aughts. Present in almost all of these images is gold: on fingers, earlobes, necks, and, of course, teeth.
Emmanuel Popoteur, a model, wears an 18-karat-gold cap on his right front incisor as an ode to the one his father used to wear. The elder Popoteur immigrated to the Bronx from the Dominican Republic as a teen in the early ’70s. In the ’80s and ’90s, New York became the epicenter of hip-hop’s golden age, bringing with it new edicts on freshness. “If you didn’t have a gold tooth back then, you weren’t poppin’, ” Emmanuel remembers his father telling him. By that point, gold and silver teeth were most commonly seen in the mouths of West Indian men and women uptown and in Brooklyn who had emigrated from places where the use of precious metals in dental work was common. In typical hip-hop fashion, however, the city’s Black and brown youth took a plebeian banality and flipped it to create something fresh, original, and undeniably fly.
“Our generation is tapping back into something that was culturally smudged due to whiteness,” photographer Quil Lemons, who shot the portraits seen here, explained. “White supremacy has always tried to dull our shine as Black and brown folk,” Brown-Cepeda said. “We’re too loud. We have too much flavor, right?” For her and her partner, Colombia native Ricardo Castañeda, wearing gold fronts is a way to shrug off a history of denigration and embrace self-determination. “Black and brown cultural production in New York City has become globalized, but people forget us, and people overlook us, and people kick us out of our own neighborhoods.… [Wearing fronts] is a way for us to express ourselves and to show up every day or whenever we choose to as the dopest, flyest, most unapologetic versions of ourselves.”
Like any good style trend, wearing custom tooth jewelry is also a conduit for self-expression. Colombian megastar J Balvin owns an assortment of fronts from a number of jewelers, including New York grills stalwart Gabby Pinhasov of Gabby Elan Jewelry and grill maker to the stars Dolly Cohen. Balvin spoke about his assortment of bespoke fronts as one might discuss a collection of Swiss watches. “I love the art of it,” he told me. “I don’t do it for the flex. I feel cool with it. I feel good, and you express that. But it’s not how many diamonds. That’s the last thing I talk about. I just want to make cool stuff and find new ways to connect with my inner kid.”
Of her custom set of gold-framed blue and white opals, model Solange van Doorn told me, “It’s just really about trying to figure out how to put a piece of you in your mouth.” JR Heffner, who does brand communications for the denim brand R13, divulged that he dons his silver set when he wants “to jump into an alter ego for a night out.” For Lemons, the appeal is both obvious and hard to articulate. “I don’t even really have that language to really contextualize why the fuck I want to have 14 gold teeth in my mouth,” he told me, chuckling. “It’s just stuntastical!”
Jordan Coley is a writer from Hamden, Connecticut.
A version of this story originally appeared in the August 2021 issue with the title “The Front Line.”
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The Front Lines
Photographs by Quil Lemons
Director of photography: Peter Pascucci
Hair by Rubi Jones at Julian Watson Agency
Makeup by Sil Bruinsma at The Wall Group