The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

Tooth gems offer a unique form of personal style for Iowa City residents

Though artists who offer this service are sparse, decorating the enamel with gems and charms offers locals a new creative form of self-expression.
Grace Smith
Big Grove Brewery Marketing Production Manager Gabby Estlund poses for a portrait at Big Grove Brewery in Iowa City on Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024. Estlund utilizes piercings, tattoos, hair dye, and tooth gems to express herself creatively. She likes the subtlety of tooth gems and gets excited when individuals notice them.

When Gabby Estlund started her position in marketing production at Big Grove Brewery, she struggled to differentiate between her professional and personal expression of creativity.

As she speaks, her teeth flash the glint of two crystals glued to each of her canines. For Estlund, her tooth gems brought the flash of self-expression she needed.

“My style is a lot of trying new things, so I just loved the idea of [tooth gems] being out there and funky,” Estlund said.

Estlund was interested in tooth gems for months and was prepared to trek to Chicago, Illinois, to get her first gems. That was until she saw an ad for Iowa City body artist Leigh Frantz. Estlund was shocked to see an Iowa City-based jeweler.

“Tooth gems aren’t new, but they’re new to Iowa because we’re late to everything,” Estlund joked.

Frantz noticed the lack of tooth gem services in Iowa, so they began offering the service in January 2023 to introduce more of their creative vision into their practice.

Getting a tooth gem begins with a long intake form of a client’s dental care and consultation of their teeth anatomy. Frantz and their clients talk about the type of design they want and draw inspiration from reference photos and Pinterest boards. Then cost is discussed before the installation begins, which can range from $60 for a single gem to over $150 for a custom gem design.

During installation, Frantz uses a primer to prep the tooth for bonding. The bond is the same as an orthodontist would use for a braces bracket. They use lead-free Swarovski crystals and 24-karat gold charms, both of which are safe to swallow.

Once the gem is placed appropriately, blue light cures the outside and with appropriate aftercare, the gem is fully secured after one to two weeks.

However, Frantz emphasized that dental jewelry has been around for thousands of years. They explain to their clients that the practice was used by ancient Mayan civilizations for both dental care and decoration.

The practice of tooth jewelry has held popularity in contemporary fashion trends, especially in Black culture — a fact Frantz keeps in mind with their practice.

“It’s that line of like, what part [of this] is this art and when is this me profiting off of this creation that’s not culturally mine in any way?” Frantz often asks themself.

Nicole Adabunu, one of Frantz’s clients, decided to cover her top and bottom rows of teeth with gems. One front tooth sports deep ruby gems, while the other reads “bit**” in gold.

“I just love looking as alien and as inhuman as possible. That’s been my thing since I was a little girl,” Adabunu said.

Her surrounding teeth are similarly adorned with gold charms, black jewels, and crystals, each tooth representing one of Adabunu’s poems.

While she was attending the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in 2022, Adabunu wanted a reminder of her hometown of Newark, New Jersey.

In Newark, gold teeth, silver caps, and tooth gems are ubiquitous in her predominantly Black neighborhood, she said.

“I just wanted something to remind me of being home because [Iowa City] was the furthest from home for me,” Adabunu said.

For her first set of tooth jewelry, Adabunu traveled to Chicago. But because of what she suspects was cold weather and travel, her original set kept falling off.

When a friend referred her to Frantz’s studio to replace the lost gems, Adabunu ended up seeking Frantz to replace her entire top row.

“I’m so grateful for what they did to my confidence, to my general appearance,” Adabunu said.

Today, Adabunu wears red braids past her shoulders and long black and red acrylic nails, but she didn’t always have the unabashed confidence and style.

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At her boarding high school in New Jersey, she said she spent her money on preppy clothes, straightened her natural hair, and spoke in a higher voice to fit in with her predominantly white classmates.

“I was really trying so hard to like, not be seen as like the Black scholarship ghetto girl who got lucky to be in this like preppy school, and despite all that I was still seen that way,” Adabunu shared.

Because tooth gems and similar adornments are more common in Newark, Adabunu said, it’s easier to find and express personal style. In Iowa City, her appearance makes some people stare in ways that made her uncomfortable.

But when Adabunu realized she could not escape other’s opinions, she decided to lean into what made her comfortable.

Frantz said their clientele is made up of individuals who own their self-expression, of whom they say the LGBTQ+ community of Iowa City is the majority.

“We just, at some point, stop being afraid of ourselves,” Frantz said.

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About the Contributors
Lily Czechowicz, Arts Reporter
Lily Czechowicz is a recent graduate of the University of Iowa from which she earned a degree in English & Creative Writing.
Grace Smith, Senior photojournalist and filmmaker
Grace Smith is a fourth-year student at the University of Iowa double majoring in Journalism and Cinematic Arts. In her four years at The Daily Iowan, she has held the roles of photo editor, managing summer editor, and visual storyteller. Outside of The Daily Iowan, Grace has held an internship at The Denver Post and pursued freelance assignments for the Cedar Rapids Gazette and the Des Moines Register.