"It's jewelry for your mouth."
That's Jay Oh, owner of the recently opened Dr. Grillz: Gold Teeth Shop on the Crenshaw strip in Leimert Park. Over the phone, I can't discern Jay's ethnicity. Ethiopian, maybe. But at the shop I'm greeted by a Korean sporting a big, white, grill-less smile. He extends his hand over a glass-fronted display case of slip-on caps and full sets, a Van Cleef & Arpels for teeth. One by one, he removes his creations and points out the details--pave diamonds, inlaid rubies, emeralds set in white, yellow and rose gold. Grills, grillz, fronts, ice . . . it's fine jewelry, no matter what it's called or how it's spelled. (I prefer grillz, a term that evokes the shiny fronts of cars. Impala, Mercedes, Monte Carlo.)
Grillz are a product of the fun, flash and materialism of hip-hop, the ultimate mega-thug glam and gleam accessory. According to the rapper Truth, a Dr. Grillz patron, gold-capped teeth hearken back to our Southern relatives, to the days when folks couldn't afford to seek professional aid for cavities. Indeed, I remember them: Aunt Rose, Betty and Uncle Jack were blinging before it had a name. Now it's not about being poor; it's the opposite. The shortlist of celebrities with grillz reads like a who's who of hip-hop royalty: Lil Wayne, Lil Jon, Ying Yang Twins, Birdman, Flavor Flav, Nelly, Mike Jones.
"It's about showing your prosperity," Jay says as he hands me a photo of a grinning pair of young white guys in full sets. "Grillz are for everyone," he adds straight-faced. When I ask people why they cap their teeth with gold or jewels, they answer with something like, "They look cool" or "They just tight." Never mind the American Dental Assn.'s warnings of the serious dangers of the prolonged sporting of grillz.
So how much do you want to spend? No. How much can you spend?
Prices reach into the many thousands. It might cost $700 a tooth and up if you go for ice cube blocks, named for the shape and close settings of the stones (not the rapper), or a band/bar style, which extends to shroud bicuspids and even molars and can boast three rows of gems.
At Dr. Grillz, Jay doesn't use "the fake stuff," as he calls the cheap metal favored in mail-order and mass-produced grillz. He relies on "real yellow, white and red gold." He smiles big several times, all white teeth. "I make them personally for my customer," he says, "I think it's better, don't you?" Agreed.
Jay obtained his jewelry-making skills from an apprenticeship with a downtown master jeweler. After 10 years of working on his own, he decided to start making grillz. And not just for people wanting bling. He talks about making grillz as if it's a calling, referring to what he does as "helping people" more than once. He tells the story of a woman who came in with "ugly teeth" and wanted a set of uppers; nothing fancy, just gold. After Jay fitted her, she was near tears, overcome with gratitude. It seems odd for someone to be so sincere about something so seemingly superficial, but Jay says he was so pleased that "she left here smiling."
At his urging, I try on gold top fronts. He tells me I should buy a set. "I'll have to think about it," I say. And I will. I wouldn't wear them to a job interview--but then again, it would depend on the gig.