Gold Teeth are Beautiful on Their Own Terms

Grills are more than adornment. They’re about Black agency.

How this aesthetic spilled into American Black culture is not clear. But by the 1980s, when golds had already been a staple of dentistry practice for decades, the gold teeth of the rappers Rakim and Slick Rick and of the boxer Mike Tyson gained a national spotlight. Today, celebrities such as Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj, and Chris Paul wear grills as a fashion accessory, their mouth glimmering.

“I tell you what,” says Michael Scott, 65, a dentist in Lexington, Kentucky, who told me he’s been practicing dentistry for 28 years and putting on golds for just as long. “When we want to shine, we want to spend more than anybody else.” A removable grill might be $200, Scott told me. But clients who opt for multiple permanent gold crowns might spend several thousand dollars.

Every gold tooth in a Black mouth is a song with no lyrics. I think of how Rochelle Younge, at only 13, draped one of her healthy teeth in gold. Born and raised in St. Louis, Younge had a best friend who was being taken by her mother to get a gold tooth put in, and so they resolved to do it together. Both of them got the crown placed on the left side, matching, each adorning their smile with a slice of the other. I listen to Younge, now 64, speak about this and think of how often I’ve looked at a gold tooth and seen a kind of North Star, a light that chants “home.”

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