Y2K toothgems are back, baby

Diamond -- and cubic zirconia! -- dentistry is experiencing a social media renaissance.

by Ella Delancey Jones
30 July 2021, 10:02am

Imagery via Crystal Canine (Instagram)

Mullets, low-rise jeans and baby tees - just some of the classic Y2K trends experiencing a resurgence, not in small part due to the cultural influence behemoth that is TikTok. The most recent craze dug from the 2000s archives? Tooth gems.

You remember tooth gems, right? They’re right up there with cropped cardigans and Von Dutch hats in our collective, dubiously cheugy memories. The early 00s, after all were a time epitomised by the power of bling, from chunky diamanté belly bars, embellished jeans spelling out ‘babe’ across the buttocks and rhinestones in the shape of a heart set into rimless coloured sunglasses. Why then, would our humble teeth be any different?

Like many blink and you’ll miss it fashion trends of the 00s — bubble skirts, tiny waistcoats and ponchos, to name but a few — tooth gems had their moment in the mainstream consciousness, then seemed to vanish. In more recent years though, they have been crawling back into the fringes of pop culture: Katy Perry has been spotted with a Nike swoosh on the red carpet, in 2017 Hailey Bieber chose to have not one, but two gems applied to her teeth, “because why not” and model Adwoa Aboah chose a classic Chanel logo, which appeared on the cover of i-D magazine in 2016.

Five years on though, TikTok has well and truly resurrected the 00s aesthetic for the mainstream. Recent research from PolicyBee analysed nostalgic beauty trends on TikTok and found that alongside scrunchies (946.2m views), temporary tattoos (544m views) and blue eyeshadow (58.2m views), ooth gems came out as one of the frontrunners for a 2021 resurgence. Views for the hashtag #toothgems currently stand at over 54.7m, which is rapidly rising, with a growth of over 12% between May and June 2021 alone, and hundreds of users showing off their professional and DIY efforts.

It’s important to note that in the face of fast-moving, ephemeral fashion trends, that tooth adornments are nothing new, even when they’re ‘coming back’. Far from being just the late 90s or early 00s trend, they have in fact have long been a part of Latinx culture, dating back to the earliest documented examples of the Mayan Empire, by dentists who decorated teeth with jade, turquoise, gold and hematite. Japanese aristocrats practiced ‘ohaguro’, dyeing their teeth black to celebrate coming of age and symbol of health, beauty and status. It would be remiss, too, not to mention the cultural significance of modern Black history and tooth jewellery such as the gold teeth popularised among 1970s West Indian communities in New York City, to the removable grills and caps, which grew through the 1990s to reach its mainstream pop cultural apex in the mid-2000s (see, for instance, Nelly’s 2005 Grillz video).

Fast forward 16 years and Lana Sophia, owner & founder of Crystal Canine is applying tooth gems to more customers than ever, some of whom travel up to six hours to have them done. “What I’ve noticed is that clients are now more open to more elaborate designs rather than keeping it dainty and subdued,” Lana explains. “I do think TikTok trends have had an influence on that.”

She has also noticed a lot of much younger clients begging their parents to bring them“But when I tell you I have applied gems on everyone, I mean it. 16-year-old girls before they get braces for the summer holidays, to old dudes who used to be in motorbike gangs getting a Harley Davidson badge. Glamourous nans who won’t leave the house without their pink lipstick, to world-famous drag queens and rappers. I’ve done them.”

Lana, who has been applying tooth gems from her studio in Chigwell since 2015, believes that tooth gems are another way to accessorise, another body modification to push the boundaries, to show off and, in curating their own designs and placements, to be unique. But simultaneously, it’s also a way to celebrate imperfections, and to transform what can sometimes be an area of insecurity something to be celebrated, not hidden “I think my favourite reason people get tooth gems is to fall in love with their smiles,” Lana says. “I can’t tell you how many people walk in and tell me they hate their teeth but leave absolutely beaming and can’t stop looking in the mirror.”

Part of the appeal, too, is that the transformation is, in comparison to other facial and dental modifications, relatively easy to achieve. Done properly that is — you need a consultation, it’s not one-size-fits-all, everyone’s bites are different. The tooth should be cleaned and dried, followed by a protective layer to support enamel and a professional-grade adhesive (exactly like the one used to apply train track braces), before applying the gem stone. It is then cured using a UV lamp, similar to acrylic nail setting.

Although the allure of tooth gems is that there is no pain, no permanence (although when taken care of, some can last up to five years) and easy application, it means that they fall into a grey area between the cosmetics and tattoo and piercing industries. Many people consider their installation to be a cosmetic procedure because it doesn’t involve drilling holes into the tooth. That’s not to say that there are no dental risks. “Jewelled gems may wear the enamel of the tooth away, increasing the risk of tooth decay and infection,” says cosmetic dentist, Dr Hanna Kinsella. “Also, dental jewels can affect your ability to clean teeth properly, meaning that it can be an ideal place for food and bacteria to hide, resulting in increased risk of tooth decay and cavities.” Which sounds admittedly quite grim.

Having a tooth gem applied is fairly accessible, with prices starting at approximately £25, but it hasn’t stopped quite a few taking a DIY shortcut, following the lead of influencers such as Naomi Jon, using nail art gems and superglue to get the look quickly. DIY efforts on TikTok have faced backlash from professional dentists who post reaction videos calling out the use of unregulated glue and warning viewers about enamel damage. TikTok creator Kailey Russell, 19, says that she first saw tooth gems on Pinterest and thought they were “really cool”. The video of her applying tooth gems currently stands at 149.k views but, she says, she doesn’t recommend people to follow it like a tutorial: “I’ve learned nail glue is pretty bad for your teeth. If I ever get another one I’d go to a professional for sure.”

Holly Laidler, 19, was first inspired to get tooth gems when she saw Iris Law sporting them. “She had one on each front tooth almost like braces and I just thought they looked so edgy and cool. I immediately got a kit off the internet and started playing around with them.” She says that the reaction she got on TikTok was “really positive” and that her DIY gems stayed on for over a month, but that she would look into getting them done professionally in future.

DIY tooth gem hacks are something that Lana is running into frequently. “It’s been a bit of a nightmare to be honest,” she says. We only have one set of teeth and need to look after them. Using things you find in the messy drawer or shed not only can cause immense damage to your teeth, but using cheap crystals that often contain lead can make you really unwell. Anything you put in your mouth, you’ll be ingesting.”

It’s not just a safety concern - the aesthetics are off, too: “I think the most awful thing I see repeatedly is crystals placed way too close to the perimeter of the tooth,” she said. “If it’s too close to the bite it can cause trauma when you talk and eat, while being too close, or on, the gum will force the gums to recede. This sounds obvious when you say it, but it’s something I see over and over again.”

Judging by the continued interest and indulgence for the 00s fashion aesthetic as well as the uptick of applications Lana has seen across her client base, it’s clear that tooth gems and other dental jewellery are here to stay, at least for a little while. However, while previously tooth gems were easy to incorporate into the wider ‘bling’ and rhinestone-encrusted trends of the time, creators and influencers appear to be much more aware of the cultural appropriation implications than they may have once been.

Content creator Emily, 22 was originally influenced by the late 90s and early 00s to apply a tooth gem. “The TikTok trend definitely inspired me. I tried lots of designs, some more simple and others more noticeable like a butterfly design, or a Playboy logo.” But, she says, she is well aware of the gems originating from Latino culture. “I think it’s important to give a big credit to them and appreciate where it started.” It’s something Kailey, too, is aware of. “I’m not sure where I stand on them at the moment. I have seen Black creators express discomfort with white people doing it, so until I do more research, I won’t be doing them anymore.”

So while tooth gems are back in fashion (at least, according to the Y2k connoisseurs of TikTok) if you’re interested in getting involved in the trend yourself, it might be worth doing your research before you commit to bling dentistry. And please, please don’t use superglue.

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