Tooth adornment is not as novel as you may think. In fact, civilisations throughout history have been practicing different forms of tooth embellishment for centuries. The history of dentistry itself is a fundamental part of our archaeological record-keeping. Teeth are extremely durable and outlive our physical bodies, meaning parts of them survive for archaeologists to discover. Evacuated graves and tombs have allowed historians and archaeologists to discover cities that once were in addition to the people that lived within them. What remains fascinating is the correlation that exists between ancient traditions and rituals and trends that emerge today. It’s interesting to examine the influence past rituals have on contemporary ideas surrounding fashion, body art and beauty.
Nelly’s music video for hip-hop hit ‘Grillz’ in 2005 was the first introduction many had to lavish dental ornamentation. The video features over 50 grill close ups, a movement in which bejewelled dental prostheses are placed to cover a row of teeth. The popularity of jewelled teeth has endured the last decade, especially visible in the entertainment industry with a host of famous singers adorning gold and silver teeth jewellery. As discernible as tooth jewellery is in contemporary culture, its origins span all the way back to the seventh century BC. The appearance and reappearance of tooth jewellery throughout history is well-recorded and prominent and although the ritualization of them varies from culture to culture, there remains a strong commonality of extravagance and indulgence that spans across human history.
The first evidence of tooth ornamentation appears in seventh century BC Italy, in the Etruscan civilisation who resided in the region now known as Tuscany. The Etruscans were eventually conquered by the Roman Empire, leaving no written calligraphies or scripts. The knowledge historians have collated comes from the archaeological excavations of the tombs and graves that remain in the area. The discoveries made from these excavations reveal a culture of tooth ornamentation that was uniquely distinct to the region. Archaeologists uncovered sets of teeth woven with golden wire, resembling a rubber band. The information collected pointed to Etruscan women being the first known proponents of tooth jewellery.
A feature of affluent Etruscan society was a gold bonding technique that was a sign of wealth and prosperity. Etruscan women would deliberately remove their front teeth and replace them with a gold band, inserted by a goldsmith. The gold band, aside from being an aesthetic feature functioned to show the rest of the community that they had people cooking and preparing soft foods for them. An indicator of wealth and freedom respectively, as the gold ornament showed that the women were also free to spend their money as they pleased. This freedom was a rarity in seventh century culture and probably isolated to this region alone. When the Roman Empire invaded, the tooth fashion along with the Etruscan’s freedom was taken.
Tooth ornamentation reappeared in Classical Central America throughout 300AD-900AD. Mayan Kings and Queens would drill holes in their upper teeth and fill them with jade stones. The translucent shade of jade green helped to distinguish royalty from the rest of society and was viewed as a sign of attractiveness. More significantly, the green stone made a socio-political statement that symbolised the obligation they had to feed and sustain their people. Although this ritual was seemingly lost through Spanish Invasion, tooth ornamentation is still visible in parts of native Central American culture.
Similar rituals can be traced back to Viking and Southeast Asian culture. In Filipino mythology for instance, the God Melu has pure gold teeth. This spurred the ancient populace to follow suit, inserting gold metals into their teeth. Even in the Soviet Union during the late 80’s, the free healthcare system implemented a system whereby a gold tooth was used to fill a cavity. The emergence of gold teeth in contemporary America was evident in the 70’s and 80’s and was popularized through hip-hop culture in the 90’s and 2000’s. Originating from New York, the grill movement soon became a staple of pop culture, and as was the case with ancient civilisations they are a projection of American wealth and influence. As with Etruscan’s high class, modern celebrities adorn tooth jewellery as a defining feature that disguises them from the rest of society.