The earliest recording of grills dates back to 2,500 B.C., when a man buried in Giza was uncovered with gold teeth in his mouth. Later discoveries were made around 800 B.C., when affluent Etruscan women wore teeth made of gold or ivory to show off their wealth, along with the Mayan civilization who proudly flaunted jade in their teeth.
In the late ‘70s, gold teeth began making a splash in the US, with the epicenter being NYC. They were usually worn by the lower class, particularly people of color, as a way to cheaply fix or preserve teeth. By the mid-’80s, hustlers and rappers began reinterpreting them to flex. Slick Rick’s “La Di Da Di,” followed up by the likes of Big Daddy Kane and Kool G Rap helped put grills on the map as a status symbol for hip-hop, and eventually street culture.
When Coach decided to outfit Lil Nas X for his 2022 Montero Tour, custom grills weren’t an afterthought, but a necessity. They needed to tie into the overall theme that Coach creative director Stuart Vevers describes as, “playful tensions between past, present, and future as they reference our American heritage through the lens of Lil Nas X.” Lil Nas X also walked the brand’s latest runway at New York Fashion Week, and starred in its most recent “Courage to Be Real” campaign.
The jeweler of choice for Lil Nas X’s Coach grills was 25-year-old Roman Kim, owner of Mr. Bling Gold Teeth, because of the rapport he and the artist had developed over past work.
The company was started by his father 20 years ago, after a family friend helped train him in the art of grill-making. The first physical store, located in Slauson Super Mall, was also home to Ben Baller at the time.
Originally, Kim wasn’t interested in grills, but he eventually came to admire the strong Black presence and deeply-rooted traditions from some of his clients. “I’ve had so many clients say, ‘I’m getting a grill because my uncle had one growing up. I always saw my parents or my uncle or my grandparents wear one.’ They taught me the importance of what grills meant to the Black community,” Kim says.
This admiration eventually led to an opportunity to work with Lamar Odom seven years ago, which cemented Kim’s passion for grills. His quality work and attention to detail would help him connect with more high-profile clients, namely Lil Nas X, who was known for regularly touting extravagant grills.
Kim ended up making 10 different versions of the same grill for Lil Nas X and Coach. “Everybody was working around the clock. We had to bring in other partners around the jewelry district because there just weren’t enough hands to get everything done. As simple as it looked, this was probably the hardest grills I’ve ever done.”
The creating process is a very time-intensive one that begins with an understanding of the purpose. Grills used for cosmetics like chipped or missing teeth differ from those used by people who want to eat with them in or by those who smoke.
In the case of Coach’s aesthetical needs, the making involved wax printing, which was then put into a cast mold and baked in the oven. Diamonds and other jewels are added after a few days, and the setting usually needs about five days to finish.
Producing grills is not without its challenges — namely time constraints — but Kim is excited about the future of the industry. “Innovation has gone through the roof. We’re now talking about opals, enameling, and 3D-printed grills, coupled with 3D CAD designs which lead to endless possibilities.”
Despite all the success and growth, he remains humble and thankful to people like Lil Nas X. “He puts grills on the map and helps put a spotlight on me and other grill makers out there. I mean for him to work with me, I’m absolutely blessed.”