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All Up in Your Grillz

Columbians are putting their money where their mouths are and buying into a hip-hop trend.

August 10, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CST

Sami Yoon stands before a wall covered with mannequin heads. They sport dozens of styles of wigs in colors ranging from blond and brunet to vivid blue, yellow and red. But it’s not the wigs or beauty products the Yoon family sells at Sami Beauty Supply, located on Business Loop 70, that keep Columbians up on the latest hip-hop trend. It’s what’s in the store’s glass display case: customized dental jewelry known as “grillz.” Made from a mold of the wearer’s mouth and cast in precious metal, grillz fit over the teeth and resemble a mouth guard. Although they sound unusual, not to mention uncomfortable, Yoon says the popularity of grillz has come on fast.

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Maximum bling for your buck

Stones

There are two common types of stone settings: they can be placed over every individual tooth or cover the whole mouthpiece. On Wall’s Web site, customers can order a grill with two diamonds per tooth and pay by the stone, or they can order a more expensive grill that has diamonds set in a grid-like pattern of square diamonds over the entire grill.

Cuts

For those without enough dough for diamonds, cuts are an alternative. A diamond-tipped cutting tool is dragged across the surface of the grill. But the diamond doesn’t stay on the grill any longer than that. The impressions left on the grill catch light better than grillz that aren’t cut. This makes the grill shine and look like it’s covered in diamonds.

Letters

Some grill sellers offer styles with colored diamonds set into uncolored diamonds, allowing the wearer to spell something on their teeth — commonly the wearer’s name. Like the grillz that are covered in small square diamonds, this type looks like a grid but has colored diamonds placed in the appropriate spots. These grills tend to be expensive, and, like Wall’s “Read My Lips” style, require two teeth per letter, so you might want to go with your initials instead of your name.

Fangs

It’s what it sounds like. Some vendors will offer, for an extra cost, to extend the grill on a tooth to look like a fang.

Open Face

These grillz have spaces cut into them and allow teeth to see the light of day. Surprisingly, they generally don’t cost less than solid grillz.

“Last year, nobody was talking about these,” he says. “And now this year, this popped up, and everybody is amazed.”

Houston rapper and grill designer Paul Wall knows all about the current popularity of grillz. His ode to dental jewelry and those who don it appears in Nelly’s 2006 hit “Grillz.” In the song, Wall raps: “I got da wrist wear and neck wear dats captivatin’/ But it’s my smile dats got these onlookers spectatin’/ My mouthpiece simply certified a total package/ Open up my mouth and you see mo’ carrots than a salad/ My teeth are mind blowin’ givin’ everybody chillz/ Call me George Foreman cuz I’m sellin’ everybody grillz.”

Grillz are no longer a novelty limited to the world of rappers and their posses; they have become another way for celebrities and the public to express style and wealth. Yoon says he has sold around 50 grillz since he started six months ago. Considering Yoon’s lack of advertising, that’s a lot. He uses word of mouth to create an exclusive feeling among grill wearers. Yoon acts as a walking billboard by wearing his own grill when he goes out.

“I have to show what I do,” he says. “When I put these in my mouth, all the fanatics that want one, little kids to grown-ups, they do come up to me and ask me how much it was,” Yoon says. He says that when he tells patrons he sells grillz, they’re amazed.

Yoon doesn’t promote his craft any other way. He used to advertise in the window of his family’s store but got tired of questions from people who weren’t serious about purchasing a grill.

Although he wears them, Yoon doesn’t make the grillz himself. At Sami Beauty Supply, customers choose the design and materials for their grillz. Then Yoon makes a model of the customer’s teeth and sends the molds to a jewelry company, where the grill is cast.

Yoon makes the mold of the customer’s teeth using a gel mixture and plaster. “I became a dentist overnight because I had to learn how to take people’s molds,” he says. The cast is a nearly perfect replica of the teeth, complete with the crookedness, grooves and any imperfections. He sends it to the jeweler, and two weeks later, the result is a piece of jewelry that will only fit the mouth for which it was made.

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While Yoon makes grillz for locals who want to look like celebrities, Wall, who has been making grillz since 1998, serves as a grill outfitter to celebrities and rap stars. With a multitude of flashy designs and a devotion to using only the highest quality materials, his products are the Rolls Royces of dental jewelry. His client list serves as testimony to the leap grillz have made from the world of hip-hop. He boasts that he has made grillz for hip-hop’s heavy hitters including Kanye West, Lil Jon and “every rapper you can think of,” and he also has created grillz for professional athletes such as Shaquille O’Neal and Serena and Venus Williams. In addition to his big-name customers, Wall creates made-to-order grillz for anybody with the desire and the money. His willingness to serve is responsible for some of the popularity of grillz.

You don’t have to be wealthy to get a grill these days, but it certainly does help. Wall sold his most expensive grill to rapper TI for a cool $30,000. He has also sold several $25,000 grillz to St. Louis rapper Nelly.

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Wall’s Web site, grillsbypaulwall.com, allows customers to make the grill as elaborate as they want, but it also allows people on modest incomes to smile like the stars. On the lower end, Wall’s customers can get styles called “Hot Boy” and “Baller on a Budget” for $70 and $75 per tooth. These models are simple, and they look like teeth coated in gold. Those looking to spend a little more can buy styles such as “Read My Lips.” This style allows the customer to spell out words in colored diamonds, two teeth per letter. This bling rings up at a very hefty $900 per tooth, which means the base price for the popular “fang-to-fang” style is $5,400. In dental terminology, that means this grill spans six upper teeth, from cuspid to cuspid. The price tag doesn’t include upgrading to higher karat gold and higher quality diamonds, or the $30 additional tooth that can be added.

It seems as though everyone is willing to drop big bucks on this trend, but the pioneers of dental jewelry are Wall’s rap predecessors. Early hip-hop icons such as Flavor Flav and Just Ice were wearing early versions of grillz 20 years ago. Grillz’ current stock as a status symbol is soaring, especially within hip-hop culture. In the past, grillz were a pricey piece of dental bling worn only by the extremely flamboyant and wealthy. Now, they are more widely available than ever before; even small cities are a viable market for grillz. Thousands of online retailers are willing to bling out teeth for customers looking to spend anywhere from $60 to $20,000.

Unlike Wall’s Web site, which sells grillz on a per-tooth basis, Yoon sells grillz for a set price. At Sami Beauty Supply, an average grill sells for around $300, but Yoon takes orders for more expensive ones. He says he is currently saving to upgrade his own $600 platinum grill for one that will have red diamonds embedded evenly across the teeth. The upgrade retails for $3,600.

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The widespread availability of grillz has made them very popular among teens. At high school dances last spring in San Francisco and Seattle, grillz became a popular prom accessory. In July, the Arlington, Texas, school district updated its student dress code by banning students from wearing grillz to school. School officials said they were distracting to students and posed a potential health risk.

Because of grillz’ surge in popularity, Yoon decided to implement certain standards for his grill trade. After selling a grill to a kid who he later found out was in his early teens, he decided to sell only to people 16 and older. Yoon, 21, thinks that at that age, kids can make responsible decisions. He also won’t sell grillz to people he knows are having money troubles and has turned down many customers because of the financial burden people are willing to take on for a glitzy grill.

“If you don’t have the money to get a grill, don’t get a grill,” he says. “But if you’re saying that this money is not going to affect how you live, I’m all for it.”

Cody Moody, a 2006 graduate of Rock Bridge High School, did have the money and bought a grill from one of Yoon’s local competitors, the Gold Valley kiosk, which is located in the Columbia Mall.

“I got it fang-to-fang,” Moody says about his gold grill.

Moody says his biggest concern before getting a grill was whether it would look good.

“I thought, would I look good in a grill?” he says. “Do I want to run around looking like that?” But after several people said he would look hot in one, he decided to go for it.

After Moody received some Christmas money, he was off to the grill kiosk at the mall for some oral bling. His grill came back in a week, but it wasn’t made properly, and one end of the grill sagged when he wore it.

“It didn’t fit comfortably enough for me to wear them out, so I didn’t,” he says. So Moody sent it back and ordered a replacement with a different look. He wanted one with cuts across it that would capture light and provide extra flash.

Poor craftsmanship is not the only cause of grumbling from grill wearers. Teeth naturally shift, which means every grill is only temporary.

“Everyone’s teeth generally shift as time goes on,” Wall says. “If you had a grill five years ago and try to wear it today, it probably won’t fit.”

Dr. Jake Lippert of the Missouri Dental Association says teeth shift from the position they were in when the cast was made. This is a problem that should be expected by those who don’t wear their grillz constantly.

“If you wear it with absolute regularity, they probably won’t shift,” Lippert says. “It won’t take much shifting for it not to fit.”

In addition, grillz can cause problems if wearers do not maintain proper oral hygiene.

“Most of the people I sell to keep it in their mouths 24/7,” Yoon says. “They sleep with it; they drink with it; they do everything with it.” Eating, drinking and smoking while wearing grillz can lead to the dental jewelry becoming tarnished. Lippert says that after a while, bits of food begin to decay and create acid that weakens the enamel of the teeth.

“They are bacteria farms,” Lippert says. “If they’re not properly cleaned, they can be a real source of infection later on.”

The American Dental Association also warns grill wearers of potential harm. The ADA explains that though there are no studies that suggest grillz are detrimental to wearers, there are also no studies to show that they won’t cause any harm. It also notes that grillz made of non-precious metals such as iron and nickel could cause allergic reactions.

Wall agrees that it’s important for grill wearers to focus on hygiene.

“Anyone with bad hygiene is doomed, with or without a grill,” Wall says. “The grill itself isn’t harmful, but sometimes the grill wearer forgets about proper hygiene and instead becomes more concerned with keeping your grill clean.”

Although their diamonds will last forever, nobody is quite sure if the grillz trend is going to stick around. Moody thinks they won’t go anywhere because they’ve been in style for too long.

Yoon disagrees and says they are probably nothing more than a fad. “It’s a trend. So I can’t really make money in 10 years.”

If this fad fizzles faster than you can say “cheese,” don’t worry. Unlike permanent adornment such as tattoos, you can always remove your grill.

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