You might not know the names Dolly Cohen or Helen Harris aka Helenwiththegoldteeth, but you will know their work. Appearing in A-list mouths everywhere, from Beyoncé and Kim Kardashian, to Rihanna and Nicki Minaj, Cohen and Harris' dental jewellery paved the way for 2021's grillz resurgence.
Once associated purely with 1990s hip-hop culture, and, more often than not, men, a new generation of female grill makers are honouring the oral artform by giving it an elevated femme overhaul. Think high-end, haute couture and handmade.
Part dentist, part conceptual sculptor, part jewellery designer, ELLE UK spoke to three women continuing where Cohen and Harris started: reimagining traditional grillz with the aim of accessorising, and accentuating, your teeth from a pleasingly female perspective.
The Graduate - Clova Rae-Smith
Brit student Clove Rae-Smith is currently in her third year studying Jewellery Design at Central Saint Martins
'When I was younger, I wanted to be a dentist, but I was never academically smart enough. I was always fascinated by teeth for some reason. There's something about wearing jewellery on your teeth that feels mysterious and intriguing. I see jewellery as sculptures but with a function. It's sculpture but worn on the body.
'I did a lot of research before I started making grillz. Adorning teeth goes back to the Mayans and the Etruscans who wore gems and jewellery on their teeth. I like to think I'm evolving a new style of grill that people haven't really seen before. It's all handmade by me. I've been able to experiment a lot because I'm a student, but it's also meant that I've had to work out a lot of processes myself. A lot of the people I've met are really lovely but it's quite a secretive business. The jewellery industry is definitely a boy's club. No one wants to give your their secrets as it is and being a woman makes it even harder.
'I just had a fitting with singer Bree Runway for a Paper magazine cover - it's a piece with loads of stones so I'm really excited about that. But, during the pandemic I had to totally change the way I worked. If a client orders a grill I'll ask them to create a mould of their teeth with an at-home kit and send it to me in the post instead of coming in for a fitting. It means I've got teeth everywhere - hundreds of them. It's getting a bit much! But I keep them all in case a client wants to place another order.
'People look at you more closely if you're wearing a grill and you feel different. It's different to a ring or a chain because it only fits you, it's a part of you. I've got a set of bottom caps and if I’m feeling bad or upset I’ll put them in and they immediately make me feel better. I've had people message me saying they've never felt this confident before. I can't really explain the effect it has.'
The Multi-Media Artist - Ruqayyah Alzona Al-Baari
Detroit-based artist Ruqayyah creates grillz in homage to her South Florida roots
'When it comes to grill culture, I would say Florida is where it happens. That full mouth of gold, top and bottom row look. I grew up seeing that all the time. Then there’s this other spiritual side of South Florida that I’m really interested in. Those ideas of alchemy and nature lead me to thinking about what teeth represent. I always think about what remnants I’m going to leave on Earth and I love that precious metals remain like our bones. For me, grillz are about more than just style, they’re like beautiful fossils.
'After I finished studying film in New York I wanted to make something tangible, so I moved back to Florida and started playing around with sketching and working with clay, and decided I wanted to make gold teeth. I went on Craigslist and that same day a grill shop had posted an ad for an apprentice. They hired me on the spot. After that I moved to LA and then Detroit, where I have my artist’s studio now.
'My grillwork is very traditional as an homage to its original environment. I make gold caps or open faces, and people like the fangs as well. What’s different about my work is the intention behind it. Everything is hard carved and I bring a sacredness to it, a sort of beauty and expression viewed through my own lens. The dream piece I’d love to make is a full set with raw emerald stones. I’d do the whole process myself, even finding the stones.
'I love seeing women wearing a full set because they’re usually worn by men. If you’re able to wear a full set of gold teeth and walk around, that means you have a lot of power in your life. There's no one dictating how you dress, how you show up or how you present yourself. It’s a crowning of sorts. To me, that's beautiful.'
The Make-Up Artist - Lisa Michalik
Make-up artist Michalik started making grillz five years ago, focussing on pieces that take dentures to the next level
'I like making pieces that transform the face entirely. I want to be able to modify everything: the face, the nose, the eyes, the ears, the teeth. I want to create an entirely new character. That's how I got into making grillz. I love that idea of pushing the transformation even further, to the smallest detail.
'My pieces are dreamlike. I want them all to be unique so I spend a lot of time imagining a piece before I create it. My grillz aren't really grillz, I prefer to call them ornaments. My work isn't influenced by hip-hop culture, it's just a result of me wanting to use the teeth in completely different way. What makes them different is the materials I use, I never work with metal anymore.
'I want people to be challenged and surprised by my work. I think it's hard to consider my work as art because it would mean that I am an artist and I'm very modest with that word. But, I think my work touches people, it makes them react, and I guess that's the whole point of art. I'd love to modify someone's teeth permanently, but for that I'd have to work with a dentist. Maybe in the future...'
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