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From £35 crystals to £30,000 diamonds: the jaw-dropping rise of tooth jewellery

<span>Dazzling grin … Solange Garcia, grill designer and co-founder of Plygrnd Ldn.</span><span>Photograph: Ejatu Shaw/The Guardian</span>
Dazzling grin … Solange Garcia, grill designer and co-founder of Plygrnd Ldn.Photograph: Ejatu Shaw/The Guardian

It’s Imogen Campbell’s first time having tooth gems, although she booked the appointment twice. She got cold feet ahead of the first one, worried what her employers might think. “I was a bit hesitant, because I work in financial services,” says the 25-year-old.

“It’s very old-school, you know, people wearing suits and stuff to work. Obviously, I’m kind of like this …” she says, gesturing at her baggy trousers and padded jacket. Campbell is now feeling braver, and is here at a tooth-gem studio in east London armed with sketches of her dream dental designs.

“People are starting to be a bit more daring and comfortable expressing themselves,” she says. “People have tattoos; why can’t I wear tooth gems?”

If you hadn’t noticed, tooth jewellery is having a moment – not just the discreet gems seen in the 1990s and 2000s, but flashy removable “grills” that can stretch right across the front teeth. Encouraged by the way that many employers have loosened or abandoned dress codes since the pandemic, more and more people are enhancing their smiles with crystals, diamonds, opals and gold. And the old gender stereotype that said gems were for women and grills were for men is breaking down, too.

Greyson Bhattal, 22, has come to Chai Beauty for a silver star on each of her canines. It’s her first visit. “I think there’s more freedom to do what you want now,” she says. Meanwhile, Chai Beauty tooth-gem technician Patrice Nuelie recently fitted a client who was in her 60s. “She was really fly,” she remembers. “Stylish.”

The big trend of the moment, Nuelie tells me as she flashes her own glittering grin, is for “confetti”, a maximalist trend for multiple gems across the teeth. The most gems her studio has applied in one sitting is 100. The butterflies, flowers and cherries of yesteryear are still popular, but so, too, are teardrops on canines and iridescent Swarovski AB crystals, named after the aurora borealis. Prices here start at £35 a gem.

Nicole Gutierrez-Lock, the owner of Skullen Studios in Newcastle, is amused by gen Z’s sudden veneration of the 90s and 00s. “It’s the same as when I was a teenager [in the 90s],” she says. “We saw trends coming back from the 60s and 70s. I think it all does this massive, great big circle.” She believes tooth gems will come to be seen as a mainstream body modification in the same way that tattoos have. She saw demand at her studio explode in 2022. “In the north-east, we’re a few months behind, and I watched the trend move up the country,” she says.

Back in London, I watch as Nuelie adorns Campbell with four Swarovski crystals, which can range in size from 1mm to 4mm. The application process is a far cry from what went on in the 90s, which almost always involved nail glue or, if the urban legend was to be believed, holes drilled into teeth. (Everyone at school knew someone who knew someone who had had this done, but had never actually met them.)

Nuelie applies an etching acid to create a porous surface on the tooth, then a resin bond used by dentists for braces. “Except we use crystals instead,” she says. Next, she adds composite glue, holds up a mirror to check that Campbell is happy with the positioning, and uses a UV light to set the adhesive.

It’s painless and takes about 20 minutes. The gems will remain on Campbell’s teeth for between a month and two years, depending on how clean she can keep them and how much she can avoid fizzy drinks and stop her tongue fiddling with them. Campbell is ready to go, braids swinging, teeth blinging and happy with her new look.

The boom in tooth jewellery comes at the same time as a surge in cosmetic dentistry. The pandemic “Zoom boom” made many people more conscious of their appearance, and procedures for teeth straightening and veneers exploded post-Covid. Meanwhile, thousands of Britons have sought out “invisible” braces from the likes of Invisalign. Last year, a survey for the British Orthodontic Society found that more than three-quarters of orthodontists had seen a rise in demand for adults seeking treatment.

If Britain is no longer the crooked smile of Europe, maybe more people now want to show off those hard-earned pearly whites? “We can put gems on Invisalign,” Nuelie says. “Some people send over their Invisalign to us. They don’t even need to come in!” But tooth gems can’t be applied to veneers; the surface is so smooth, the gems would slide off straight away.

Studios claim tooth gems are safe and harmless, but there are others who see this as the beauty industry’s latest unregulated venture. Many dentists are on the warpath over the application of tooth jewellery, which they say can chip teeth, damage enamel and accumulate plaque.

“It can be very difficult to adequately clean the area of the tooth surrounding or underneath the jewels,” says Dr Praveen Sharma, a scientific adviser to the British Dental Association. “Over time, the bond between the jewels and tooth can become less effective, allowing for further bacterial accumulation, this time in an area impossible to keep clean. This means that the bacteria will build up, and over time this can cause tooth decay and tooth loss.”

When I contact the General Dental Council, the UK’s dental regulator, a spokesperson tells me it views the application of tooth jewellery as dentistry, and that anybody carrying it out is breaking the law if they aren’t registered with the GDC. In reality, it’s a legal grey area with seemingly no prosecutions so far, and technicians insisting that because they use dentistry-grade products, there’s little safety risk. Both Chai Beauty and Skullen Studios said that, while tooth-gem removals are illegal, which is why neither carry them out, they believed application to be legal.

What studio technicians and dentists do agree on is the dangers of DIY home-application kits, which, despite being widely available online, risk toxicity, infection or choking.

But all that’s worlds away from the high end of the market, as seen in Hatton Garden, London’s jewellery district. At Plygrnd Ldn, the most in-demand luxury grills studio on this side of the Atlantic, I spot blownup photos of British rappers Dave and Central Cee, as well as Rita Ora, all sporting grills made here. Other customers include the actor Letitia Wright, who wore her Black Panther-inspired grills to the Met Gala last year; Jesy Nelson from Little Mix, who shelled out on a heart-shaped gap filler, a Dutch opal and a J with pink diamonds; and even Gemma Collins, of The Only Way Is Essex, who had a set with the word “DIVA” glittering across her upper teeth.

Plygrnd’s founders, Solange Garcia, 32, and Snow Vuong, 36, say they are challenging the notion that grills are the preserve of male hip-hop stars – and male tooth artists. “As a woman, but also as a creative, I was like, I have all these ideas that none of these male grill-makers want to make,” Garcia says. “There was a gap in the market for people like myself who wanted something more premium that still had a little bit of fun, creativity and all of that wrapped around it.”

Set across three of her upper teeth she has a yellow gold tooth cover, a hand-carved 3D flame and a diamond border. On the other side of her mouth, a single tooth is covered with gold hands in a “praising” pose. Her first tooth adornment, she says, was “a backdoor bootleg type of gold tooth” from Brixton market when she was 18.

Sixty per cent of Garcia’s clients are female, and she is witnessing a new generation of grill wearers who consider the removable jewellery as luxury investment pieces. Avery Dawn, a 25-year-old pop singer, has £1,300 bottom grills made of diamond, pearl and moonstone, her birthstone. “A lot of people think grills have to be really aggressive – like, you know, the rapper kind of grills,” Dawn says. “But when you take a look, it looks quite dainty.” Claire Wang, 24, has an ornate silver design across her bottom teeth, and silver caps on two of her top. The medical student commissioned them for about £400, and says she tries to spend her money on things that are “more tangible” and “last longer”. “I’m trying to be less of a crazy consumer,” she says.

When someone approaches Plygrnd for a bespoke grill, they are first asked not about which precious gems or shapes they like, but about their personalities. “Where did you grow up? What’s your best childhood memory? What’s your favourite colour?” says Vuong, who has designed grills for her two daughters’ milk teeth. One of her clients loves the sunset and sea, so she created a grill that featured the blues of the sea and sky using tanzanite, a gemstone found only in his birth country, Tanzania.

None of this comes cheap: the most expensive grills Garcia has worked on cost the wearer more than £30,000: a set of flawless diamonds not just in front of the teeth, but behind them too. But Vuong insists it’s worth it.

“A jeweller can make a wedding ring really personal,” she says, “but a grill will only fit one person, and your teeth are the part of you that survives longest when you die. So it’s really the epitome of who you are.”