Back in late 1999, in an era still recalled fondly by a handful of Oakland businessmen, the gold tooth reached its apex of fame, and a single shiner sold for as much as $180. Say you wanted two gold teeth -- that'd be $360. Add in some tiny diamonds for glitter's sake, a streak of bright platinum for the real bling-bling, and pretty soon, we're talking $1,000 smiles on both sides of the counter.
"I only needed two, three customers a day," recalls J.C. Jo, owner of a downtown "grill" shop on Broadway near 21st Street. J.C. specializes in making the more popular removable gold fronts that fit over the customer's real teeth like a metallic mouthpiece. He honed his craft while working for a well-known competitor during the boom years, then opened his own shop last November.
But J.C., like many other newbie grill-shop owners, may have caught the gold-tooth wave a little too close to shore. Currently, shop owners estimate, about eighteen grill shops operate in the East Bay, an all-time high. The glut of competition has rapidly driven prices down. And even though more customers are out hunting for gold teeth than ever before, the product's ubiquity among teens is precisely what's pushing it down on the hipness meter. After all, how cool is your gold tooth if everyone has one?
Today, a single gold front in Oakland's downtown goes for just $20 per. "Now I get eight, nine, ten people a day and I barely make a profit," J.C. complains. "But I can't raise my prices or I'll lose customers to the shops around the corner. If it stays like this, it's not worth it. I'll close the shop, maybe move to another city."
Perhaps no one in Oaktown knows more about the gold tooth phenomenon than Joshua Dodds, a senior at McClymonds High School. Last year, the eighteen-year-old spent a few months making a documentary on the subject, exploring all aspects of the tiny fashion ornament. "I saw 'em popping up all over school and in the neighborhood, and so I was like, 'I want to know more about this,'" he says.
Dodds found that for some of his schoolmates a gold tooth was nothing more than a flashy piece of jewelry, like an earring. To other kids, nothing said "gangsta" better than a gold front -- and "gangsta" was exactly what they intended to say. Not unlike cornrows a few years back, Dodds realized, a gold-toothed smile provoked an insta-judgment from strangers.
Since so little had been written about how gilded grins became fashionable within the black community, Dodds had trouble tracking down the history. He settled on a combination of oral accounts from relatives, friends, and dentists, who managed to concoct a general theory that gold teeth are holdovers from the days of slavery. The theory was that former slaves earning wages during Reconstruction distrusted banks so much, they accrued their wealth in gold and had it melted onto their teeth for safekeeping. After the start of the twentieth century, as dentists began using gold to cap diseased or decayed teeth, shiny caps were increasingly equated with poor dental hygiene. And that meant poverty, and poverty meant ghetto.
Somewhere along the line, the gold tooth transcended its need to protect against bank collapses or determined cavities, and went cachet. In the early '80s, as Dodd points out in his doc, hip-hop acts went mainstream, and artists such as Public Enemy's Flavor Flav appeared on MTV for the first time, proudly sporting a mouthful of bullion. Worn for style's sake, the teeth seemed to imply: "I'm from the ghetto, but I'm still wealthy -- so wealthy, in fact, I can afford gold even in my mouth."
Permanent caps, like the ones Flavor Flav appears to wear, are gold fillings melted over shaved-down teeth. The American Dental Association disapproves of removing any tooth matter unless it's severely diseased; at least one "dentist" known for doing permanent gold-front work in an office along Telegraph Avenue refused to speak with a reporter. Even though permanent caps are held in higher regard, the same way real tattoos trump fake ones, the market for removables is much larger.
Removable caps are much easier to make. Customers bite into a plaster mouthpiece for a few minutes to leave an impression. Gold is then poured into the mold to make a perfect fit, ready within 24 hours. As Dodds puts it, removables allow more options for the wearer: "If I want to be professional one day, I can take them out."
At first, there were only a handful of grill shops around. Harry Jung, owner of Mr. Bling Bling in San Francisco, recalls the time warmly, noting the per-ounce price of gold was low and desire for his product high. "We hardly had any competition," he says. Jung did so well, charging nearly $200 a cap, that he opened up K2 Jewelry in Oakland's downtown last year. By then, though, several rival shops had opened, as reams of MTV artists made the product a co-star in their videos. The price per tooth was falling -- now $80 per -- but it was still enough for Jung to rake in the cash.
Life is no longer so rich, however. The cost of gold is up, and price wars have broken out in the East Bay. The passion behind the craftsmanship has also suffered; for the fabricators, casting gold fronts is as repetitive and exciting as making dental retainers. And the original cachet is history, Dodds reports. "It used to be if you had a gold tooth, you were stuntin'," he says. "People would come up to you and ask, 'Where'd you get it? How much you pay?' Then everybody had 'em last year, and they went out of fashion.
"So if you're wearin' them now, this year," he adds, "it's like, everyone had them already. You missed your chance to shine."
Kids still pop into J.C.'s shop on their way home from school, many just to pester him with questions. The proprietor looks over their heads, which are glued to the glass tops of the jewelry cases. "They're not customers," he says. "They just look, look, look."When he opened his store, J.C. made a splash with the low price of $40 per tooth. Jung's K2 challenged him at $30. J.C. went down to $20. "They think I'm the enemy now," he says. "They blame it on me. But I had to get customers right away. But now I don't know how to get the prices up."
To do so, he might have to collude with Jung and the other owners or move to another town. According to his research, Sacramento kids are still paying $80 a tooth. To add to his troubles, he must also compete with Web sites such as gangstagold.com that send out impression kits to online customers, who can receive their new fronts within a week.
Not all is bad, though. One eighteen-year-old customer at J.C.'s shop recently spent $800 on a full rack of gold and diamonds. Even though that kind of sale keeps him afloat, it's tough knowing that just a couple years ago the same mouthpiece sold for a few thousand dollars. The majority of sales these days, J.C. says, are small-time.
Eventually, one of the kids at the counter looks up: "Ay, how much for just a front tooth?"
"Twenty," J.C. replies, pointing to the wall where posters advertise the prices.A few minutes later, the young customer talks the owner into two fronts and a fang (canine tooth) for $58. It's one of only a few sales J.C. would make that day. The kid pulls out $19 in crumpled bills for a down payment, and says he'll pay the rest tomorrow.
"Nineteen dollars," J.C. mumbles quietly, as he puts the money in the register.