Tooth gems through status and fashion

From a symbol of wealth to a renewed trend, the meaning of tooth gems has changed

Aurel, 21, tooth gem technician modelling their latest set of tooth gems they applied on themselves. Photo Geneviève Sylvestre

Tooth gems have exploded in popularity recently, with increasingly more people looking to get them done or learn how to do them themselves. However, aesthetic dental modification is an ancient practice that has historically been used as a social signaling years before becoming an acclaimed fashion statement. 

The recent rise in tooth jewelry has its roots in Black culture, with fronts and grills rising in popularity in the 1970s and 1980s, quickly becoming a corner-stone of the hip-hop scene.

Originating from West Indian immigrants in predominantly Black neighbourhoods in New York City, as the use of precious metals for dentistry was more common in the West Indies, it soon became a fashion statement. Unlike tooth gems, which are individually glued onto teeth, grills snap over the teeth and encapsulate them in a precious metal, like gold and occasionally jewels.

Many attribute Nelly’s 2005 hit song “Grillz” as the entrance of grills in mainstream American culture, with the song topping the charts and the video showcasing dozens of close-ups of grills. 

However, early examples of mouth jewelry date back much further than the 20th century. Archeologists have discovered that the Ancient Maya used precious materials, such as jadeite and pyrite, for dental inlays and fillings as early as the eighth century. 

Archeologist and professor at the University of California, Los Angeles David Cheetham says that these dental modifications, as well as other types of body modifications performed by the Maya, were used to demonstrate one’s social status. 

“It's social signaling,” said Cheetham. “As opposed to, say, a big house on a hill in Hollywood or a Ferrari, you're walking around with the ultimate social signal, which is your face, your head.”

Dental inlays served as a symbol of beauty in ancient Maya culture and the procedure was mainly performed on the elites of Maya society. To perform the procedure, they would drill a beveled hole into the tooth’s enamel so that a stone could fit snuggly. Jade dental inlays in particular were a beautification procedure that demonstrated one’s social standing. “[Jade] is their gold, this is their precious stone,” said Cheetham. “[The Maya] would carve jade into any number of things, everything from necklaces to larger objects that would be used in rituals.”

Today, tooth ornamentations, also referred to as tooth gems, are regaining their prevalence without the process of drilling or the requirement of being an elite. Instead, gem technicians apply the charm to the tooth with a dental adhesive and cure it with a blue light.

Caren Labib, a human resources student at Université du Québec à Montréal, chose a gold starburst charm for her tooth gem after seeing many Egyptian social media influencers she loves getting them done. “I'm a jewelry girl, and I'm a gold jewelry girl,” said Labib. “I already love stars in general, so it felt kind of complete, you know, like the final touch." 

Tooth gems are a semi-permanent procedure that should last around six months to a year. According to Longueuil-based tooth gem artist Aurel, improper oral hygiene, levels of acidity in the mouth, and eating crunchy or acidic foods are all factors that can affect their longevity. 

For their clients, Aurel says the service can be a confidence booster. “I have a lot of clients who come in and they're like, ‘Oh, I'm not confident about my teeth and everything, maybe it can be a way for me to be smiling more.’ If I can help make someone more confident in themselves, of course I'm going to do it,” Aurel said.

Aurel choosing the perfect four gems to use on their client. A four gem set usually takes around 20 minutes to apply. Photo Geneviève Sylvestre

Tooth gems can be applied by tooth gem technicians, but  can be purchased on sites like Amazon or Etsy. Many professionals discourage applying them yourself, as many do-it-yourself kits contain gems or glue that are not meant for the immediate mouth area and can lead to tooth decay.

Karina Oliver is a tooth gem artist and entrepreneur based in Montreal. After years working a traditional nine-to-five job, she wanted more financial freedom and a more flexible schedule, so she decided to start her own business.

Oliver finds that the semi-permanent aspect of tooth gems is appealing for people who, for personal or religious reasons, don’t want the permanence of a piercing or tattoo but still want to enhance their look. “It’s something that you can hide, it’s semi-permanent, but it’s also something that can make you feel like, ‘Oh my gosh, I got this done,’” she said.

That is true for Yassine Haddar, who first became interested in tooth gems after seeing his teeth whitening technician’s portfolio on Instagram. “I don’t wear earrings and piercings don’t interest me, but it’s cool to have something shiny without going as far as getting a piercing,” said Haddar. “I wanted something discreet. Not too showy, not too extravagant, but something that’s there and that adds something nice.”

While the procedure has risen in popularity recently—with Google searches for tooth gems being the highest they’ve ever been since 2004—their purpose as a way for the elites to distinguish themselves has faded and people today choose to get them done for a variety of reasons.

Marilou Duquette, a makeup student at Collège LaSalle, first became interested in tooth gems when she was looking for a way to decorate her smile after getting her smiley piercing removed. “I had a friend who had a tooth gem and I thought that was really cute because I always wanted something around the mouth area,” said Duquette. “I love having tooth gems. I feel like it adds so much to the face.”

While tooth gems might not necessarily denote an elite status as they originally did, getting them done by a professional can run customers up to hundreds of dollars, as dental experts recommend only high-quality materials—like Swarovski crystals, gold or silver—should come in contact with the immediate tooth area.

“I've always had a big interest in tooth gems since I was a teenager. I've always been into glam and jewelry and just bling. So I always wanted a diamond or something in my tooth,” Oliver said. 

Tooth gems are now seen as an often exciting beautification procedure with a rich history dating approximately 1,500 years. Like most other voluntary aesthetic procedures, the barrier to entry can be high for many, but the procedure has nonetheless gotten significantly more accessible today.

This article originally appeared in Volume 44, Issue 8, published January 16, 2024.