Rapper Lil Wayne showed off his diamond-encrusted grill in 2006. The fitted teeth coverings are popular among rappers and hip-hop artists.
Rapper Lil Wayne showed off his diamond-encrusted grill in 2006. The fitted teeth coverings are popular among rappers and hip-hop artists. Jim Cooper/AP
The first time I wore my grill, I was giving a presentation under a projector light. Everyone in the audience was like, "Ahh, ahh!" And I was like, 'What's wrong with you people?" And they said, "Your grill. It's blinding us."
The grill blinded my mom, too. "Oh my goodness, that is ugly. That's tacky," she said. "What purpose does it serve other than the shock value or something?"
To me, the grill was like an ultimate symbol of masculinity. It secretly substituted for what I felt was my lack thereof. But then my mom said, "Is that s—t really real?"
My mom busted my bubble with that question. What if this thing is fake? I got even more worried about my grill when I talked to my co-worker Orlando about his. He was told his grill was 14-carat gold.
"I knew there was something off, because my top grill and my bottom grill were slightly different-colored yellow gold," Orlando said. "So I knew that there was something a little fishy going on."
Now, I have a complex about this thing in my mouth. So seeking the VIP treatment, Orlando and I bypass the pawn shop and head up the hill to the University of California, Berkeley. We showed our grillz to geologist Kent Ross.
"Is this your first time seeing a grill?" I asked.
"Yes," Ross replied.
"So, I'll never come to Berkeley and find you with a grill in your mouth," I said.
"No, I don't think so," he said. "I stay at home and read books a lot."
He also spends a lot of time in the lab, with his electron microscope. It looks like a small microwave. Ross sticks our grillz inside and triggers the electron gun.
"Electron beams make solid materials give off X-rays that tell you what elements are in the material," Ross explained.
A series of peaks start to appear along a graph on a nearby computer screen.
"Bigger peaks are the more abundant elements," Ross said.
The biggest peaks we see are the gold ones, so that's a good sign. But the electron microscope only measures the grill's surface. To find out whether it's solid gold, we need to do a density test, weighing the grill in water, then in air.
"I'm gonna go in my office to check my book, to find out what the density of gold and copper and silver are," he said.
The results? While the density of my grill reveals it's 14 carat-gold through and through, Orlando's is just a little too light.
"It looks like there has to be some low-density, cheaper core inside of it, and the gold is coated on the outside," Ross explained.
"I'm crushed," Orlando said. "No, man, I didn't believe those people at all these gold-teeth shops were selling solid-gold grillz. It is what it is. Fake it till you make it. Or just make it."
I must admit, I was trying to fake it to make it with my grill. And now that I think about it, it would have been funny if my grill were fake, like my alter-ego dreams of transforming myself into a thug, just because I have a grill. I still don't want my intelligence insulted by phony merchandise. But I'm no longer trying to prove myself based on the things I buy — or the sparkle of my smile.
This story was produced by Youth Radio.