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Put your money where your mouth is

Forget pearly whites. More and more young people are flashing 14-karat smiles.

A crowd three people deep surrounds the kiosk for Yuro Design in the jewelry exchange at Downtown Crossing. The bodies press against one another, jockeying for views of two display cases. Of particular interest are the four rows of teeth-shaped jewelry, some made of white or yellow gold, some sprinkled with diamonds, some sporting fangs. The teeth caps are alternately called grills, fronts, shines, plates, or caps, and these glittering decorative pieces are the latest hip-hop culture trend making its way into the mainstream.

Black, white, Asian, or Latino -- if you're young and urban, grills are the piece of jewelry to lust after. Once popular only in the Midwest and the South, the jewelry is now turning heads in other regions. Young girls clamor for the look in San Francisco, and teens are flaunting grills in Toronto. Grills are now so common, you can buy them on the Internet at goldteethny.com or gangstagold.com.

The look is omnipresent in pop culture. ''Grillz," Nelly's homage to the look featuring rappers Paul Wall, Ali and Gipp, recently spent time in the No. 1 spot on Billboard's Hot 100. The video for Three 6 Mafia's hit song, ''Stay Fly," kicks off with group member Juicy J sticking upper and lower grills onto his teeth, then turning his jeweled smile on his horrified elderly neighbors. Anyone who watched MTV's reality show ''Making the Band 3" late last year couldn't miss the golden glitter of Diddy's teeth in several episodes. Even Travis Barker of blink-182 and actor Johnny Depp have sported the look.

Although people have purchased fronts in Boston for years, those catering to this crowd have noticed a recent uptick in interest.

''Maybe the last three months or so," says Yurik Honarchian, owner of Yuro Design. ''It's been really more [in] demand." Honarchian estimates that he sells 10 a week. ''Christmastime was crazy," he says. ''I had 50 people waiting for their teeth."

Hornarchian entered the jewelry business in 1997, selling the same gold jewelry offered by other kiosks in the jewelry exchange area at Downtown Crossing.

''I really didn't like it," says Honarchian, who closed the shop within a year. ''I'm not a salesman. I was interested in making it and designing it."

After a foray into other careers, he decided to do just that. In 1999 he returned to the jewelry business, teaching himself how to manufacture rings, necklaces, and other pieces in the workshop he created on the third floor of the building. He began selling the golden accessories in 1999, after he noticed people were asking for them. A year and a half ago, Honarchian opened his kiosk downstairs alongside his brother Alfred, who repairs jewelry.

''Today I'm the only one doing it in Boston," says Honarchian, ''doing all the molds from A to Z. A couple of people take the mold and send it to Atlanta [for completion]. A lot of times, it doesn't come out right. That's why [the customers] come back to me."

Roxbury resident Jazmyn Evans, 19, wouldn't go anywhere else to get her grills. ''This is like the most popular [shop] in downtown Boston," says Evans, who was picking up her new grill. ''You really have to come to the city to get this."

Fronts have been a staple in the hip-hop world since Slick Rick and Flava Flav wore them back in the 1980s. By the 1990s, members of the Staten Island hip-hop collective the Wu-Tang Clan would sport them, but the look really took off with the help of the Southern hip-hop craze. Master P., Baby, Ludacris, and Lil Jon all often flash sparkling smiles. Wall, who emerged into the mainstream last year from Houston's hot hip-hop scene, even has a side business selling grills through his Houston shop, TV Jewelry. His company makes custom mouthpieces for Kanye West, Diddy, Usher, Snoop Dogg, Lil Jon, Omarion, and Bow Wow. Regular folks can buy his grills at tvjewelry.net.

Fronts were the first jewelry purchase made by Willie Jones, 24, almost a year ago.

Why'd he get them?

''Because of the women," the Braintree resident says immediately. ''They like them. You gotta do what the women love."

To prove his case he opens his mouth and bares his fronts -- rose gold and diamond bottoms, white gold and diamond tops. The effect is stunning, Jones says. ''They be like, 'Damn,' " he says.

He gets even more intense reactions, he adds, when he pairs his fronts, as he does on this day, with the rest of his ice: two thick bracelets, one of rose gold and diamonds, and the other of white gold and diamonds; an assortment of gold and diamond rings; and a huge white and rose gold watch sprinkled with diamonds.

''You gotta be different," Jones says, referring to his mixture of rose and white gold. ''It stands out more than all the same color."

When Jones sees Honarchian, he shows him a photocopy of the next set of teeth he wants. They're in the popular ''invisibles" style, which gets its name from the several rows of diamonds that hide the metal base below. Honarchian often creates custom pieces for his customers.

''They say they want something that nobody has," says Honarchian. ''I draw a few things and they say, 'Yeah, this is what I want.' "

Fronts can cost from $140 for a three-tooth cap to $290 to $350 for the popular six-tooth cap. The price increases, of course, when you add diamonds.

Who is the customer for this jewelry?

''It's mostly men," says Honarchian. ''But lately, you know, females are doing [it] more."

Females such as Evans. She's from South Carolina and had already owned some fronts before losing them during the move to Boston. The jewelry is her way of staying fashion forward. She wears a bevy of small gold bracelets and three rings -- the grill helps finish her look.

Evans's assessment of the celebrities wearing fronts?

Of Diddy, she says, ''He don't belong. He needs to be in a business suit."

Depp, however, gets the thumbs-up. ''He's a 'hood dude," says Evans, admiringly.

She's with Lance Smith, 16, who pulls out a wad of cash at the jewelry exchange to show who's fronting the fronts for his friend, Evans. He says of the style, ''People are getting it because they look fresh. I bet half the people in here want fronts." He's saving for an upper grill himself. He wants to buy a four-tooth cap with fangs on each side.

Earlier in the day, a 25-year-old from Brockton who said his name is Hood is perusing Yuro Design's display case looking for a replacement of the gold fronts recently stolen from him.

''I don't know what somebody can do with teeth," says Hood. Alfred, Honarchian's brother, tells him the thief could probably trade in the gold for $80 to $90.

Hood first encountered the style when he was living in Florida. ''That's why I started to like them," he says.

For his second set, he has specific demands. ''I want it shiny," says Hood, asking to look at a $2,500 diamond and gold piece. ''Nice and shiny." He looks over at his friend, who shakes his head to affirm Hood's choice.

Hood says the response to grills varies. ''Some of the girls," he says, ''they don't like it, saying, 'It's ugly.' "

But thanks to ''Grillz," it looks like nothing can stop this jewelry's trajectory. ''It's getting more and more accepted, you know," says Hood.

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