In his song "Grillz," Nelly has plans to "rob the jewelry store and tell 'em make me a grill." But if state representative John DeBerry of Memphis has his way, jewelry store grills will be illegal even without a robbery.
DeBerry has proposed legislation that would ban stores and mall kiosks from taking impressions of teeth to make grills, customized gold or platinum mouth-jewelry made popular by rappers.
If the "Grills Bill" passes, only dentists will be allowed to make dental impressions.
"I'm not trying to outlaw the appliance," says DeBerry. "The reports I'm hearing are that [jewelry stores] are taking impressions of teeth and it's not under sanitary conditions."
To take an impression, a jeweler or dentist uses a mouth-shaped tray filled with alginate, a molding material. The customer bites down for two minutes. Then plaster is poured into the alginate mold. The resulting cast is mailed off to a company that fashions grills out of precious metals.
"In dental offices, everything is autoclaved and sterilized," says local dentist Stueart Hudsmith. "I doubt seriously that takes place in a jewelry store or a Mapco on South Third."
Hudsmith doesn't make impressions for grills. Dentists who do, he says, are few and far between: "Most know better than that."
Semi-permanent grills are affixed to the teeth and cannot safely be removed without a dentist. Some require that teeth be drilled or filed down to fit.
"The semi-permanent types, if they're done wrong, can cause the tooth to decay," says oral surgeon Steve Maroda. "Once you start taking tooth structure away, you're opening it up to softening and becoming a cavity."
Hudsmith recently replaced 14 teeth on a man who had both his upper and lower permanent grills removed.
"A lot of these gang guys have semi-permanent grills. They'll have them for a few years, and then they want to change their lives and become a regular part of society," says Hudsmith. "They want all the gold removed, but when they take it off, there's complete tooth devastation."
Many jewelry stores only carry snap-on grills, which fit snugly over the teeth and can be taken out for daily brushing. The snap-ons, also called "snatch outs," cause less damage than semi-permanent grills, but DeBerry has heard reports of kiosks and stores re-using molding trays for multiple customers.
"I'm sure everybody's going to say we don't do that. But who can prove they don't?" asks DeBerry. "Nobody's watching."
Donnie Thompson, sales manager at Jewelry Market on South Main, scoffs at the idea of re-using molding equipment. His store uses a new molding tray and fresh alginate for each customer, and he wears rubber gloves during the process.
"I even had a dentist teach me how to do it," says Thompson.
The Jewelry Market sends their molds to a Texas-based company, and a snap-on grill is returned in two to five days. The grills cost from $50 to $1,500, depending on the materials used.
A similar law was passed in Florida several years ago, and undercover police now target jewelry stores that continue to make grills. The jewelers are then charged with practicing dentistry without a license.