Dental grills might seem like a latter-day invention, but they’re actually anything but. Decorative tooth accessories were status symbols as far back as the seventh century B.C., when wealthy women adorned their teeth with thick gold wire. And like most innovations, they’re even more refined today. Among the trade’s most imaginative practitioners: Australian-born, New York–based jeweler Ri Serax, whose outrageous embellishments are worn inside the mouths of rap and R&B artists including Jpegmafia, Princess Nokia, and Vic Mensa. We recently spoke with Serax about the evolution of her practice, and why her work is especially relevant today.
How did you get into designing grills?
I’ve always had an interest in jewelry. But when I moved to America from Australia, in 2017, I had time for a new hobby. I started to learn goldsmithing and taught myself as I went, making some things for friends. In 2018, someone asked me to make a gold tooth. More people kept asking for them, and then people I didn’t know started asking, too. I didn’t advertise my work anywhere. But soon I had a big waitlist of jobs, and making grills evolved into a business.
Your clients are located all over the world. How do you customize pieces for them in the midst of a pandemic?
Traditionally, grills are made by hand. You take an impression of someone’s mouth, make a plaster recreation of it, then design little pieces of jewelry for the teeth. I 3D-print my designs in resin, cast them in metal, and add [precious] stones. This year I started experimenting with doing this digitally. I’ve partnered with dentists, who use much safer equipment to take scans of clients’ mouths. Now, if I have a client in London or Paris, I can find a dentist over there to take a scan for me.
When I put teeth into a 3D-modeling program, I can make anything. That’s why some of the designs are pretty ridiculous. I made one with Pokémon characters on it, others with lots of flower details, and some Monopoly-themed ones with a little Monopoly man. It’s just a matter of understanding the nuances of how to shape a design to the teeth, what’s going to look nice, and how to not obstruct the mouth.
What are the grills made of?
They’re usually made from 14-karat or 18-karat gold, or any medically safe metal. Sometimes people ask for silver, but I tend to not do much of that because it tarnishes. Gold at 14 karats or more is high-quality—it’s safe, and it’s going to last and look beautiful forever.
Why are people drawn to gold teeth and grills, particularly right now?
It primarily comes from people wanting a fashion accessory, but there’s another thing to think about: These pieces are solid gold. They’re a commodity. Last year, when Covid-19 started, [the price of] gold shot up a lot—so if you own gold, it’s really increasing in value. People see the material as an investment, and my clients are thinking that way: “I’ll create a piece to hold my assets.”
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