Ibrahim Sabbi, 24, of Humboldt Park, flashes their freshly-bedazzled teeth after a session with @gemmycharmedlife, aka Kati Llewellyn, at Cyprus Cosmetic Collection, 2342 W. North Ave. Credit: Linze Rice for Block Club Chicago

CHICAGO — When Erin Rembert left her marriage and job two years ago, she needed a fresh start.

“I was just not in the happiest space and I really needed to work on my smile,” the 37-year-old native Chicagoan said. 

While visiting a friend in New York to clear her head, the pair decided to do something Rembert had never done before: get a tooth gem. 

“It changed my life. I was like, ‘You know what, I want to do this,’” she recalled. “I want to be a tooth fairy, and I want to work for myself, and I want to make other people smile that are having a really hard time smiling.”

After completing an online training course from an esthetician school, which offered a certificate, Rembert said she created a community of other gemmers to apprentice with, and began practicing on her own teeth before taking on clients.

Today, she works out of both her home studio in Ukrainian Village and from a part-time studio at Twisted Scissors hair salon, 2007 N. Point St. in Logan Square, specializing in crystal buildouts, Swarovski crystal freestyles and grills. On average, she gems about three to five smiles per week, plus sets up at private events and parties under her Instagram handle @rocksteadystonez.

Erin Rembert, a Chicago gem artist and owner of @rocksteadystonez. Credit: Provided

Growing up, Rembert said her parents couldn’t afford all the dental work that she needed, like braces. It wasn’t until she bejeweled her teeth that she began to find beauty in the imperfections and embrace her smile. Her years-long experience as a professional cabaret and burlesque dancer introduced her to the enchanting beauty of Swarovski crystals.

“My teeth are insane, and I love them,” she said, describing a prominent “vampire”-like tooth that used to cause her anxiety. But with a mouthful of sparkly gems, “it provides a different kind of power within itself than I was used to.”

Now, after providing custom gem and grill work for nearly two years, Rembert said she hopes to instill confidence in others through her creations.

“It’s a beauty standard for literally nobody except you,” she said. “What I really found interesting about this [was that] my smile is just for me. So the spicy moment that’s in there, that makes me feel so much more confident.”

What Are Tooth Gems?

Tooth gems — tiny charms made of gold, crystal, diamond, precious stones, and glass — have been around since as early as ancient Mayan civilization, according to the American Dental Association (ADA). The practice is common today in Central America and Southeast Asia as part of cultural traditions, and in recent years has become popularized in the United States as a temporary mode of self-expression or body art. 

Similarly, tooth grills, or removable, ornamental apparatuses molded to a person’s mouth, became popular in mainstream Western culture through hip-hop and rap artists in the ’80s. 

Tooth gem work done by Erin Rembert. Credit: Linze Rice for Block Club Chicago

How It’s Done

On a recent afternoon, Block Club stopped by Cyprus Cosmetic Collective, 2342 W. North Ave., to watch as 24-year-old Humboldt Park resident Ibrahim Sabbi received six glittering gems between their upper canines. Sabbi’s artist-technician for the day was Kati Llewellyn, a 36-year-old queer gemmist from Portage Park who operates under the Instagram handle @gemmycharmedlife.

Llewellyn applying agents to the teeth that will help the gem bond to it. Credit: Linze Rice for Block Club Chicago

A rising star in the local industry today, Llewellyn said she gets about 15 to 25 clients a week on average. The vast majority of her consultations begin in her Instagram direct messages, where she and a potential client exchange information, questions, and talk style, selection and pricing. The consultation continues into the appointment, where she uses a mouth map — a paper card with a graphic of a toothy smile — to plan out placement and design. 

Applying the finishing touches before the big reveal. Credit: Linze Rice for Block Club Chicago

She guarantees her gems will last for at least one month, with some of her original installations from the fall of 2021 still holding strong, she said. Her rates for gems start at $60 and up, and her 18-carat-gold charms start at $100, with an average price of roughly $150 an appointment. 

Sabbi said they would recommend it to anyone interested, noting that they’re temporary-to-semi-permanant and could be changed if one so desired. 

“It’s really painless experience and really cool, kind of like dyeing your hair,” they added. 

Taking a first look at their glittering new grill. Credit: Linze Rice for Block Club Chicago

What Do Dentists Think?

Lindsay Wagahoff, associate director of governmental relations for the Illinois State Dental Society (ISDS), the state branch of the ADA, said both organizations advise against the application of tooth gems “due to the increased risk of negative health outcomes” such as the risk of serious lesions, damage to the enamel from adhesives, discoloration, and the potential to swallow detached gems.

But Dr. Lynse Briney, treasurer of the West Suburban branch of the Chicago Dental Society, said that to her knowledge, there aren’t any studies to determine whether tooth gems are safe or unsafe. 

“If proper dental products are used to place the gems on the teeth, then the process could be relatively harmless; however, maintenance of the gems and making sure you can clean around them would be more challenging,” she explained. “Once the gem comes off the tooth is when there may be an issue. Improper removal could cause a lot of damage to the teeth and gums.”

Tooth gem mapping. Credit: Linze Rice for Block Club Chicago

Dr. Brandon Prusa, a dentist who practices in Lakeview, said he strongly recommends that only a licensed dentist apply tooth gems, noting several complications that can arise with the teeth and gums, like cavities or allergic reactions to etching agents.

Diamond In The Rough

Without a clear path to licensure in the same way a tattoo artist or piercer has, gemmists say they’re stuck in the “wild west” of a regulatory gray area.

They’re not sure where they fit in the beauty world — providing tooth gems is not quite cosmetology, and it’s not quite a service an esthetician would offer. It’s body art, but not at the same level of modification or permanency as a tattoo artist or piercer. It’s cosmetic, and definitely a beauty service, but the gemmists say they don’t consider it true dentistry, either. 

Wagahoff said the ISDS and ADA believe the application of tooth gems does constitute dentistry under the Illinois Dental Practice Act, pointing to the law’s definition of “dentistry” as, “the healing art which is concerned with the examination, diagnosis, treatment planning and care of conditions within the human oral cavity and its adjacent tissues and structures.” Therefore, their belief is that only dentists should perform the applications.

“What Kati and other folks like I am doing is simply cosmetic,” Rembert said. “It’s a beauty service. And so it’s very different than the actual science of dentistry and orthodontics.”

Kati Llewellyn showing off her own teeth after completing gem work for a client. Credit: Linze Rice for Block Club Chicago

Llewellyn and Rembert both said they’ve read the state’s dental act and couldn’t find anything about tooth gemming or who could or couldn’t apply some of the dental products. “It varies a lot by state, but in Illinois, it’s pretty wild west,” Llewellyn said.

Rembert said when she set up her studio at Twisted Scissors they looked over the law and anything that might apply to be as compliant as possible, but also came up empty. 

“We did a trial pop-up because we looked up the legality of if I needed to be licensed, [or] if they needed to have any sort of different licensing than what they already have to service the salon estheticians and the cosmetologist,” Rembert said, “because those are different worlds.”

Before becoming a gemmer, Llewellyn had gone to cosmetology school and got her esthetician license. She was providing facials for about a year before the pandemic shut everything down, and in the fall of 2021 pivoted to begin specializing in tooth gems. Like Rembert, she takes it upon herself to get certified in certain safety and sanitation training — even though they aren’t necessarily compelled to due to the lack of regulation.

What she learns, she then passes down to others, like Alexa Tragos, a 29-year-old queer artist and Douglas Park resident who works with her at Cyprus. In January, Tragos got her certification in tooth gemming and has been looking to Llewellyn as a resource and mentor as she gains experience.

“The regulations and classes are so all over the place,” Tragos said, explaining that she doesn’t believe the laws have quite caught up to the mainstream practice of tooth gemming. “Some of the classes are really great and in-depth and you’re working with dental hygienists and everything, and some classes are like, ‘Pay $500 and get certified in an hour online.'”

Alexa Tragos has been working with Llewellyn to learn more about the tooth gem craft while working together at Cyprus Cosmetic Collective. Credit: Linze Rice for Block Club Chicago

That’s why working together via mentorship is so crucial, the gemmists said, particularly in an industry where there can sometimes be an unwillingness to share information or pressure to compete. Fortunately for Tragos, that’s not something she’s experienced in her current role. 

“Kati has been incredible with resources and any information that she has…,” she said. “Which I think is what’s beautiful about this. We’re all women who have this very unique synergy between everybody.” 

Cyprus Cosmetic Collective, a queer, woman-owned shop that performs a number of beauty services. Credit: Linze Rice for Block Club Chicago

Grin And Wear It

Ultimately for the gemmers, their work is meant to improve self-esteem, have fun, and challenge societal norms about beauty, they said. 

Though much of their regular clientele includes musicians, stage performers and artists, they say gems can be for anyone. A major misconception they say they encounter is that the trend is “trashy” — when it’s really meant to be just another form of self-expression through beauty. 

“There’s a lot of stigma with grills being like this super ‘hood’ thing, and that’s where I think racism definitely factors into this,” Llewellyn said. “What is it about the people who are wearing them in American culture that you’re associating this with, why is that bad, or good, or whatever?”

The fetishization of rap culture has falsely led some to believe that tooth adornments are distasteful, Rembert said. Yet, Llewellyn says she sees all sorts of clients, including Swifties who were in town for the recent Eras Tour. It’s the latter group, which tends to skew white and female, that is seen as participating in a cute trend when people of color aren’t often given the same benefit.

“What we see [in pop culture] are just sensationalized moments, and I am a woman of color,” Rembert said. “Specifically, I am a Black woman and it’s definitely like having a grill can be very impactful in a very positive, or seemingly negative way, in terms of how a controlled public eye perceives it.”

When the singer FKA twigs showcased some tooth bling, Rembert said she was ecstatic to have a celebrity she admired take part in the trend. However, it wasn’t until Kendall Jenner flashed a gold cross tooth gem on the red carpet that Rembert said she saw a spike in clients.

“My business exploded even more than it already was thriving,” she recalled. “It’s very interesting to see just the differences in how it hits in different beauty worlds and the greater beauty world.”

Like any other aesthetic choice, your tooth gems are about personal style preferences. There isn’t really much of a difference between having your ear pierced versus having a beautiful piece of jewelry on your tooth, Llewellyn said. “It’s for anyone.”

“Why not have a little sparkle to wake up to every day?” Rembert added.

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