The rise in gold prices has hurt the business of selling grills
on November 16, 2009
Just back from his namesake city, “New York” was looking for a tune-up for his custom grills. “They don’t fit right,” he said. “I had my back teeth pulled, and I think my teeth are shifting.”
“New York” also known as Edward, who declined to give his last name, reached into his mouth, pulled out two rows of diamond-encrusted gold and silver caps, and handed them to John “JC” Cho, Oakland’s self-proclaimed “Gold Teeth Master.”
From his shop on Broadway near 21st Street, Cho crafts glittering gold and silver-plated caps for customers willing to pay at least $20 per tooth. He works alone, in a sparse shop with little furniture or decoration. The pictures that do adorn the walls show men with mouths open, flashing glittering gold and silver fangs.
Cho’s work combines the technical precision of dentistry with the craft of an artist. “You have to make sure the metal doesn’t damage a person’s tooth,” he said. His father was a jeweler during Cho’s childhood in Korea, but after years working in a dental lab, Cho saw an opportunity in 2000 to combine his talents. No one teaches the special techniques he uses, he said, and he’d like to train someone to carry on the craft when he’s gone.
But with gold at $1,100 an ounce, business is tough.
“It just doesn’t make money right now,” he said. His English bears the influence of his native Korea.
Six jeweler’s cases separate the showroom from his workshop in the back. Inside each case, rows and rows of greenish-blue plaster molds hold sparkling gold and silver specimens. Some are simple caps, fitting like mouth-guards over the top of teeth, but most are a glorious mix, encrusted with precious stones, sharpened into vampire teeth, emblazoned with sports logos and dollar signs; each fit to order and ready for their close-up.
“This is not a necessity,” Cho said, referring to the grills “This is cosmetic. People want to show that they can spend money.”
Gold is a soft metal, so grills are never a full 24 carats, otherwise they’d never hold up inside a person’s mouth. Cho said that most grills are brass, copper, or silver, with a 10 to 14 carat precious metal overlay. Most customers start with the regular set — something in basic gold or silver. But usually that is just the beginning. “You can always upgrade,” Cho said. “Add diamonds, lots of things.”
New York, for example, said he began with a regular set — smooth and unadorned without precious stones or patterns inlaid on the surface. But he moved on, looking for more style, and added bars — flat panels arrayed across the grills on both his upper and lower sets. Bars are a ready platform for jeweled artistry, displaying precious stones, dollar signs, hearts, stars, sports logos, even someone’s initials. New York’s current set flaunts a dense grid of diamonds and ribbed gold, forming a glittering bridge across the top of his teeth. With enough investment, a customer can look like hip-hop icons Lil Wayne or Flava Flav, with diamonds on every tooth.
One customer in JC’s shop said he spent $5,000 on a set of top and bottom grills each encrusted entirely in diamonds. When asked how often he wore them, he said “Every now and then. Whenever I’m really feeling myself.”
Sabria Williams is browsing for her third set of golden accessories. The freshman at Alameda College said her first set was silver, with emeralds arrayed in slanted lines along the incisors. The second set was similar, but with diamonds.
“I think the first one was stolen,” she said, “but I definitely lost the other one.”
Williams wears her grills at least twice a week, and mostly on the weekends when a lot of people are wearing them at parties. The competition to stand out can lead to some excessive results.
“This one boy had a mouthful of gold with crazy diamonds on the tops and bottoms,” she remembered. “Plus he had this overbite. It didn’t make sense.”
After fewer than 10 minutes of reviewing her options, she honed in on a set of golden lowers with a squared-edge beveled cut across the surface. The ”princess” cut. “Just like my sister said I should get,” Williams said. “She has the same one.”
To take an impression of Williams’ lower teeth, Cho filled a green plastic mouth-guard with dental mold. This latest set will run Williams $150; she said it will be the last, should she mislay them as well. “I’m definitely not getting another pair,” she said.
Despite the expense, Williams said she knew some people who didn’t take proper care of their investment, forgoing nightly brushing and rinsing after use. “You need to brush them as you would your own teeth,” she said. “Some of those boys out there don’t know that.”
William said the popularity of grills and the myriad purchasing options gave her a lot of choices. She bought her emerald-encrusted set from a shop in East Oakland that charged $10 a tooth compared to Cho’s $20. There are plenty of gold teeth shops throughout East Oakland, she said, especially along International Boulevard from East 14th down to 106th.
“Not to sound like a follower,” said Williams, “but everyone had them.”
Williams said “had” because the rise in prices has tempered the drive for gold teeth. “People have definitely calmed down lately,” Williams said. She added that the shop in East Oakland with $10 teeth recently raised its prices to $30.
Cho gets steady business from customers like New York and others looking to clean or adjust their grills, as a dentist or orthodontist would do for dentures or braces. He cleans the small silver and gold pieces with a powerful steam sanitizer jet.
“When you get a customer,” Cho said, “they become a continued customer.”
Cho said that business has gotten tougher since he started nearly a decade ago. Gone are the days when gold was $280 an ounce. The average price on the international gold market has gone up roughly $235 since December 2008. With gold currently at $1,100 per ounce, local competition in Oakland makes it hard for Cho to stay ahead. “Gold prices are way up but I can’t charge higher prices,” he said. “People want the price as-is.”
When asked whether he might be photographed at work, Cho declined. “Top secret,” he said. “Then all my competitors will know my techniques!”
Commodity prices may be sky-high but JC said it doesn’t take a lot of money to open a new shop. With four hours of teaching a day, he said, he could prepare a young person for the trade within six months. He said he’s come to know lots of young customers, and that he’s keeping an eye out for a dedicated candidate. “I want to give back my techniques.” he said “I want to give back to my customers.”
After taking a look at New York’s sparkling incisors, Cho brings the pair to a high-powered steam gun for cleaning. “That’s $50 to resize,” he said.
New York sighs but agrees. “All right, man. Fifty bucks. I’ll come pick them up tomorrow.” Despite recently becoming a father, the 6‘4” New York feels the price of standing out is worth it. “That’s why I got customs,” he said, “I don’t want mine looking like everyone else!”
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