"Teeth are already a work of art. I think that’s what has always fascinated me" – says Juanita Grillz founder Adrien Flores
Grills. Those shiny staples of 80s rap culture worn today by everyone from Kim Kardashian to Madonna. But in actual fact, our desire to dip our pearly whites in semi-precious metal actually dates back much further than likes of Flavor Flav. Kicking off in 800 BC, the Etruscans, an ancient Italian society, would cover their teeth in gold wire, both for aesthetic purposes – they were a symbol of status, wealth – and to prop their fallen teeth back in place. This was then followed by the ancient Mayans who would cut tiny holes into their teeth and fill them with precious stones, most often jade, because, well, they just felt like it.
Fast forward to today, and decorating one’s teeth with diamond encrusted dentures has become so ingrained in hip hop and popular culture, that an entire industry has formed around it. And as grills enter further and further into the mainstream, their designs have become more intricate, more extravagant and more avant-garde. At the forefront of the movement is Juanita Grillz.
“Grills have become custom-made jewellery that everyone can wear,” says founder Adrien Flores. Based in Brussels, Adrien designs a wide variety of grills, ranging from neon spineball adorned frames to intricate wire contraptions. Initially studying at Villa Arson, in the South of France, Adrien’s move into grill making came “completely out of the blue and was not planned at all”. Needing to make a metal tooth for one of his sculptures at school, Adrien realised he had neither the materials nor the knowledge to achieve this. He then met a dental technician and after working together Adrien realised that in the technician’s laboratory there was everything needed to make a grill. “We tried to make one, and it worked out right away. He taught me the necessities to make grills and offered me many essential tools to start. It gave me the energy I needed to begin the new project.”
After this Adrien and his brother set up a studio and soon started working with creatives such as Yung Beef and Cecile Serres. He called it Juanita, after the name given to an ancient mummy that was discovered in Arequipa, Peru, Adrien’s father's country. “She was a little girl who had been preserved by the ice at the top of Ampato volcano. She was an Inca, and her body was found surrounded by figurines and jewels. When I saw this mummy in Arequipa a few years ago I was very moved.” Now, the designer boasts a cult following on Instagram, a space where he shows off his designs, inspirations and the process behind making a custom piece.
“It is only very recently that I have started to really become interested in the history of jewellery,” Adrien says. “Over the years, we have seen incrustations of stones directly in the teeth in Latin America. We also see some tribes in Asia and Africa where they cut their teeth into points or the black painted teeth worn by the Geishas. All these transformations are part of a beauty criteria specifically created by a tribe or a population and their culture. It also helps to identify a social class.”
Taking his inspiration from cinema and music, specifically directors David Cronenberg and David Lynch who “show the body in forms we are not used to seeing”, Adrien’s interest in grills stems from a belief that teeth are loaded with symbolism. “Teeth are the hardest tissue in our body. It is a kind of an identity card implanted in us. This is how forensic medicine recognises someone’s identity when the body has been burned. When you think about it, it’s a really strange part of our body. It seems strange to all the rest of our composition. Well, I mean, it has enamel on it. It’s already a work of art. I think that’s what has always fascinated me.”
Currently working on a project with Isamaya Ffrench, Adrien is increasingly proving one to watch.