From inlaying teeth with jade to metallic grills – the concept of braces has come a long way, often inspired by the latest in popular culture
Calling someone a metal mouth may be a modern taunt, but the Mayans were inlaying teeth with jade nearly 2,000 years ago. Hippocrates and Aristotle wrote about dentistry circa 400BC, and the Etruscans (from what is now Tuscany and Umbria) tried to protect teeth for the afterlife with dental appliances, as part of their burial rituals. One Roman tomb showed evidence of teeth bound in place with gold wire, and there is a suggestion that even Cleopatra wore braces, while still alive.
Dentistry, however, didn’t really get going until the 17th century, coming into its own during the 18th and 19th centuries when advances in materials and, most importantly, pain relief allowed more invasive work to be carried out. With improving lives and diets, an increasing number of people began to straighten their teeth with wires that pulled everything into alignment.
While braces remain the bane of adolescent life, the rise of hip-hop resulted in a very different manifestation – the grill. Also known as fronts or gold, the practice of covering teeth with a removable metal plate of silver, gold or platinum first began in New York in the 1980s, when Eddie Plein, owner of Eddie’s Gold Teeth, made a set of gold caps for Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav. Over the following years, as rap became increasingly mainstream, so too did its fashions, and by 2012, American Olympics swimmer Ryan Lochte was wearing a grill emblazoned with the US flag, and Katy Perry’s grill spelt out Roar a year later. Beyoncé, Lady Gaga and Rihanna all took to wearing them, but by 2014, two millennia of innovation screeched to a halt when Madonna – then 54 – stepped out in a set.