While sitting across from a friend, I noticed the light catching a tooth. Upon closer inspection, I realized there was a gem on their canine in the shape of a star. I was instantly drawn in, watching as their smile became an accessory.
Adorning teeth with jewelry has a long history. “Rich Etruscan women wore what we would now think of as grills. Some affluent women had their front teeth removed and were fitted with a gold band appliance (much like a dental bridge) for adornment that held a decorative gold tooth,” a blogger at a dentist’s office in Scottsdale, Arizona writes. “The gems were worn as a statement that they were responsible for life-giving rains, fertile crops and ensuring their people were fed and prosperous,” goes a different version of this story, which comes from the website of a dental practice in New Jersey. The Berlin fashion website Highsnobiety claims that someone named Eddie Plein started making grills in his Brooklyn apartment and then starting selling them to rappers like Big Daddy Kane, Just-Ice, and Flava Flav out of his pawn shop in Queens.
Clarissa Hurst – who used to apply gems to teeth from her studio in Bushwick before taking her business on the road – says the first gem ever placed on a tooth was at a Swedish music festival in the 1990s.
“ToothKandy just had their 10 year anniversary this week—they are a company in LA who were one of the first to try and monopolize the trend in 2012, but it wasn’t too popular. People in the US around that time did not even know about tooth gems, unless they were in California,” said Hurst.
Hurst claims to have invented a number of popular designs herself: various two and three-tooth hearts and numerous spirals. One of Hurst’s most popular is a so-called “pierced tooth” look that was featured last year on the Instagram page of Dazed, a British magazine. She says she is one of the only gem applicators in the world working with Swarovski brand microcrystals, encapsulated flowers, and tooth stickers to evoke brand logos and various fonts.
“There are still things being created today with further advancements in technology. From tooth tattoos to 3-D printed retainers with images on them,” Hurst promises.
Like grills, tooth gems catch the eye, but they aren’t as upfront as a full set of grills. They also are created differently.
“[Grills] are temporary pieces, and are molded from casts of your own teeth, specific from person to person, making the process a lot different from tooth gems,” Hurst says.
According to Hurst, they are applied using a light-curing process, not unlike applying braces, and are removed the same way braces are— and she says they are less likely to damage teeth.
“They last a few months to [a]year depending on what type of gems you get and gold typically lasts about a year or longer,” said Hurst. How long they last also depends on how they are cared for and what your diet consists of – Hurst recommends avoiding taffy foods and adds: “make sure you go to someone who is credible and professional so that your gem doesn’t fall off within a week.”
The industry is largely unregulated and just about anyone can claim to know what they’re doing.
“This can literally be done by someone who watches some videos on YouTube and orders supplies on Amazon. It’s kinda crazy,” said Bianca Buchanan, a gem-applicator herself who runs a business in Williamsburg called Bling by Bianca. Both Hurst and Buchanan declined to disclose how much they charge for the procedures and prices can vary widely depending on what kinds of gems people buy.
The hardest part and sometimes longest part of an appointment at one of these places is choosing what gems you want applied – Buchanan offers a wide assortment of gem shapes, colors, and even gold designs.
When you finally choose, Buchanan hands over goggles to protect against UV light, dries the tooth involved and applies some dental cement. Then she puts the gem on there and cures it with the high-power UV light. And just like that, the five-minute process is done.
Hurst speculates that accessorizing teeth has grown in popularity due to the ongoing pandemic.
“With COVID mask restrictions, people are having more fun with tooth art as there is less consequence of, say, your boss seeing it.”
Grace Mc Nally, a ToothCharm regular who lives in Queens, also thinks that a lot more people will start getting these.
“I don’t think there is a lot of body modification that is temporary like this – piercings and tattoos are permanent. So I think this is a great way…to dip their toes in the water,” said Mc Nally.
Top image taken by Grace McNally.
For more news, sign up for Bushwick Daily’s newsletter.
Join the fight to save local journalism by becoming a paid subscriber.