interesting tidbits about so-called grillz throughout history

My intention is to highlight a particular trend throughout human history: the choice to adorn and modify the teeth. Presumably, baring teeth as a smile or a snarl has been a recognizable behavior throughout all of our existence wrought with both immediate and abstract meaning. 

We can speculate about what these aesthetic choices meant to our ancestors but realistically, we can never know for sure.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here: let’s start with why put gold in your mouth to begin with? Gold is malleable, immune to corrosion and soft much like teeth’s own natural enamel. So when archaeologists reported ancient discoveries of using gold in dental work - it makes sense! 2,500 years ago- the ancient Etruscan replaced missing teeth with those of animals and carved ivory and not surprisingly- held in place with gold bands. 

So let’s start there. Rich Etruscan women enjoyed the right to own property and presumably the right to their own bodies - as the practice of removing one’s front teeth and replacing it with the first intelligible, removable “grill” - a fitted band of gold, which seems like a decision you have to be in on.

Some of my favorite teeth based body modifications come from my own ancestral network: 

  • Pre-colonial Filipino mythology represents the creator god Melu with pure gold teeth - unsurprisingly, we humans mimicked. We have evidence of this decoration from colonial interlopers like Father Pedro de San Buenaventura, a Spanish missionary, who in 1613 attributed in Vocabulario de la Lengua Tagala more than 100 words to describe gold
  • In Kabayan, people wore chakang - fitted gold bands which covered the entire front row of teeth, likely not very practical adornments but much more similar to what we would recognize as grillz today. Interestingly, especially to me as a Filipina-American woman, Francisco Antolin in his 1970 study Notices on the Pagan Igorots in 1789 wrote that "leading women would place a plate of gold over their teeth and remove it to eat” - much like their Etruscan counterparts. These chakangs were regarded as heirlooms and passed down - definitely an intimate way to remember your lola!
  • In Bolinao, in the Pangasinan province, teeth were drilled with small holes that gold pegs were inserted into to form a disk or fish scale. It can only be imagined that this was a representation of wealth and status. This practices were seen as barbaric by colonial interlopers, as they also felt about the Mayan modifications 
  •  While not gold centric, another example that intrigues me from my presumable ancestry is from the ancient Mayan society, where green jade was highly valued and thus, not surprisingly, used in body modification. They similarly drilled small holes around 3mm to set round pieces of jade directly into their teeth.

So how did gold teeth get popular in the United States? Immigrants’ dental care - not much has changed, huh? And sure enough - the Caribbean oral hygiene of NYC in the 1970’s was appropriated and adapted into fashion, made unique by jewelers and their clientele throughout the USA and internationally.