Flames. Drips. Butterflies. Old English engravings. A Black power symbol. Bedazzled fangs. In the world of oral jewelry design, if you can envision it, you can wear it on your grill.
“You have to learn how to make anything possible,” explains grill designer Elan Pinhasov-Malaev over FaceTime. “That’s the trick in this business.”
The jeweler is the son of Gabby Pinhasov, a New York legend who has been making grills for some of the biggest names in hip-hop since 1991.
Together, they run Gabby Elan Jewelry, a small design studio with a massive impact, thanks — in part — to an impressive roster of celebrity clients. The duo are currently making bespoke grills for Kim Kardashian, Pharrell, J Balvin, and Dua Lipa, all of whom are repeat customers.
Halfway through our interview, Pinahasov-Malaev politely pauses the conversation.
“Do you mind if I call you right back? Marc just walked in.” When we pick up the call again, I’m informed that Marc Jacobs came to pick up an intricate set that took four weeks to perfect. He was elated with the finished project.
Despite being in the throes of a pandemic that mandates mouth coverings, business is booming at Gabby Elan Jewelry. And they are not alone; the popularity of grills, gold teeth, and oral jewelry at large has spiked dramatically in recent years.
“My clientele changed from 90 percent guys to majority women,” says Elan. “We make grills for everybody. Fashion people, artists, athletes, hipsters. You used to never see white girls with grills, for example. Now we see a lot of them.”
For decades, grills were a distinctive signifier of upward mobility within the Black community, but their staunch cultural associations with respect to race, class, and gender have faded in time. While many would argue that the broadening of the oral jewelry demographic is a textbook example of cultural appropriation, the (problematic) reality is that there has been a significant shift in attitude regarding the public’s perception of who is “allowed” to wear jewelry on their teeth, and what it means to do so.
With this in mind, Lyle Lindgren wrote Mouth Full of Golds, a “definitive history of gold teeth” that traces the trend’s origins in communities of color, illuminating the various characters, musicians, and artists that paved the way. “It’s so important for people to understand where [grills] come from, who pioneered it, and what it took to get there,” says Lindgren.
His book traces the evolution of removable gold fronts and grills from their invention by Eddie Plein in a Williamsburg basement in the mid-’80s to their “fashionization” in the 2010s. “When Eddie Plein started making grills, the possibilities were limited by what could be made by hand,” Lindgren says. “But with computer aided design programs and 3D printing technology, jewelers can rely less on hand sculpting — and create jewelry that’s far more intricate and meticulous.”
Although we are in the middle of a major 2000s revival in fashion and pop culture, contemporary grills stray dramatically from the gem-laden, “icy” styles sported by Paul Wall and Nelly, when his 2005 hit “Grillz” was a radio smash.
“It’s become more accessible and it’s become more couture,” says Lindgren. Over time, grills have become a function of fashion, rather than an extension of hip-hop culture. This shift started to happen around 2011, thanks to experimental grill ambassadors Pharrell and A$AP Rocky — whose style, in Lindgren’s words, “fused rap and runway” — and the influence of Dolly Cohen, a Parisian grill maker and darling of the high fashion world, whose elegant and minimal designs were donned by stars like Pharell, Rocky, Rihanna, and Cara Delevigne.
Cohen, who has since collaborated with brands like Hood by Air, Balenciaga, Givenchy, and Ivy Park, proved there was white space in the market for more experimental pieces and influenced a subsequent generation of artists designers who treat teeth like blank canvases.
Now, daintier and subtler styles like “windows” (which outline the teeth), “bars” (which go across the teeth), and “spacers” (which go between the teeth) are popular, in addition to iconography-based work (like logos), shapely silhouettes (like flames), and unusual gems (like opal). The Instagram accounts of popular grill designers like Youth Grillz Paris, The Grillest, Milk and Honey, The Grillmeister, and countless others are filled with dynamic designs such as Chrome Hearts, Louis Vuitton, and Vivienne Westwood logos, and even intricate odes to figures in the art world.
“During Covid, people were bored, in a good way. They had more time on their hands to do more research,” Pinahasov says. “Now, people are finally waking up to the possibilities and how much you can really personalize these styles.”
The resurgence of the trend has been accompanied by a reimagination of how grills should be styled and when they are appropriate; they are increasingly viewed as an accessory to an outfit relevant in a wide array of contexts, rather than a statement of status for the stage or red carpet.
“In my opinion, grills are the height of rap and fashion,” explains Warren, the lead designer behind Youth Grillz Paris. “They’re an essential accessory that makes all of the difference [in an outfit]. Grills are much more personal than, say, a ring. They’re true extensions of individual personality and style.”
While sites like Instagram have played an instrumental role in promoting access and exposure to grill makers, the culture of social media itself has also amplified many people’s desire to stand out. In the age of algorithms and endless feeds, rocking a one-of-a-kind piece of art on your teeth is a sure fire way to capture people’s divided attention. And as platforms like TikTok increasingly normalize even the most extreme style choices ( face tats, rainbow hair, etc.), the incentive to innovate is at an all time high.
One of the artists raising the bar for the avant-garde art of grilling is Juanita Care. “When I was starting out, there were very simple [grill] models. But as people have become more comfortable with the idea, the language of dental jewelry is much broader,” says Care. The designer, who is half Pervuian, is inspired by oral jewelry worn in ancient South American cultures.
“The Inca and Maya wore jewelry in the mouth to elevate their appearance and make themselves look more like golds or divinites,” Care tells me. Though dental jewelry disappeared in this culture (thanks to the influence of colonizing forces), oral jewelry's link to an idealized self has persisted throughout various waves of its history — the contemporary resurgence included. Grills, perhaps more than any other piece of jewelry, have an uncanny power to transform the way people feel about themselves and how they are perceived.
“It’s amazing to watch people put on their grills, because they really become another person. A much more confident person,” says Adrian Baier, an oral jeweler known as the Grillmeister, in Berlin.
“From time to time, when clients are standing here, looking in the mirror, I see tears streaming down their face. For many, it’s a kind of dream — sometimes since childhood.” His studio in Reinickendorf, which is strewn with teeth casts and clay molds that will soon be cast in gold, possesses the creative energy that you often feel in artists’ studios. When I ask him about grills’ magnetic power, he accredits their somewhat subcultural status in the jewelry world. “Even though attention around grills is growing, I think it will always be niche. It’s not like a tattoo that you can hide. They’re right in the center of your face! If you wear them, people will see them.”
While designers like Pinhasov think grills could easily be mass-produced and therefore completely co-opted and neutralized by the fashion industry, others think the “slow fashion” aspect will protect them from ever becoming properly mainstream. No two sets of teeth are the same, nor are any two sets of grills.
“It’s bespoke. That’s where the charm and attraction lies,” says Lindgren, who compares the feeling of going to pick up a new set of grills after weeks of anticipation to Christmas morning. Whether or not oral jewelry will become as commonplace as, say, a nose ring in the coming decades remains to be seen. But the question of their counter-cultural potency feels more urgent. When I ask Baier about how the popularity of the trend will affect his own artistic trajectory, he replies confidently: “I think I’ll always be making special pieces for special people.”