Prong settings, common on rings, are no good. To keep a jewel in its place in a human mouth, Tyler learned, a bezel setting that encircles the gem with a rim of metal is the only way to keep it secure. With practice, he found that he could design bezel settings with style.
Tyler was only renting his place in the pawnshop, much as hairstylists rent stations in a salon, and he made a modest living creating custom jewelry and repairs for the store's patrons. Increasingly, he found that customers -- black men, primarily -- were coming to the shop with damaged jewelry and asking not for repairs but for a different kind of salvage. They'd bring in trashed rings, for example, which might be unredeemable except for a small diamond or two still embedded in them. Tyler would be asked to retrieve the gems and find a way to mount them on a gold dental crown, which the customers would also bring with them.
His customers weren't particular, Tyler says. Crude settings were fine, as long as the bit of sparkle was mounted to the gold cap. After Tyler made his bezel setting, his customer would head to the dentist to have the crown installed.
Tyler's growing reputation for mounting gems on crowns attracted the attention of a diamond buyer, Kevin Szilvasy, who regularly came to the pawnshop. A tall man with an imposing build, Szilvasy had a steady hand of his own for making creative settings, and he sensed that a lucrative local market was growing for dental jewelry. Two years ago, he asked Tyler to throw in with him on a storefront. Szilvasy could bring his expertise with diamonds to the partnership, he said, but he needed Tyler's business sense -- and his good credit -- to open a place.
Szilvasy's fortunes needed a boost. He'd owned his own store, Szilvasy Jewelers, near Bannister Mall, but on a December night in 2002 he was followed to his Raytown home by two armed men, who forced their way into his house. One held his pregnant wife at gunpoint while the other pushed Szilvasy to the rear of the house, intending to force Szilvasy to drive to the store and let him in. But in a moment of inattention, the gunman turned away, and Szilvasy reached for a knife he always kept on his belt. Before his captor could react, Szilvasy says, he gutted the man. The intruder bled to death on Szilvasy's floor. His companion fled. Prosecutors later ruled that Szilvasy had acted in self-defense and didn't press charges against him.
But his wife, after being so traumatized, found that she could no longer handle the store's accounting, Szilvasy says. He closed his business. Then he had to kick an OxyContin addiction he'd picked up while trying to ease the pain of a rotator cuff he'd torn in the struggle with the would-be robber.
Szilvasy says he badly needed a run of better luck. And he still had a customer base of about 300 African-Americans who, he told Tyler, would spend large for well-made dental ornamentation.
After some resistance, Tyler, now 37, agreed to team up with Szilvasy, 46. Together, the two white men set out to conquer the mouths of black Kansas City from the oddest of locations.
White Johnson County.
The Ice Boyz, as they have come to call themselves recently (if not to their white clientele), added a third member late last year, who brought something to the cabal that Tyler and Szilvasy lacked: call it mouth cred.
Dana "Shott" Crawford's kisser is a testament to the skill of his partners. Eighteen diamonds of varying cuts and sizes gleam from expertly fashioned gold settings on his teeth. Having spent large amounts of cash for his smile, Crawford has become a full partner of the jewelry store's owners.
But Crawford is such an unusual sight in white, affluent Overland Park that his presence at Tyler and Szilvasy's storefront, Corner House Jewelers on Metcalf at 95th Street, left one older white customer seething recently.
A Pitch reporter had noticed the white customer's impatience as Crawford helped a black customer and then shared a snappy handshake before making a showy departure with him from the store. Later, the Pitch asks Tyler what bothered the older man.
Tyler says the customer, a regular named Howard, was shocked that Tyler had allowed a black man behind the counter. When Tyler told Howard that Crawford was a very good customer who had spent more than $65,000 in the store, Howard replied, "Well, the drugs must have been good that month."
Tyler says he countered that Crawford, in fact, owns a recording studio. Then he changed the subject.
Tyler admits that catering to the dental-jewelry tastes of African-Americans from a store that, from the outside, looks like any other Johnson County strip-mall engagement-ring joint has produced some odd encounters.
Howard isn't the only customer who has seemed thrown off by the store's black patrons, Tyler says.
He knows that his business is an unusual place, where hip-hop flash meets what he calls "old, old-school" propriety.
When he first opened the shop a year ago, Tyler did his best to put out a welcome mat for the urban clientele that he hoped would cross town for the kind of quality that he and Szilvasy could offer. So he threw a party.
Tyler says the grand opening at Corner House Jewelers had a red carpet, a limousine, six female models, steaks, a full bar, two flat-screen high-definition TVs and tents out back.
No one bought anything.
"I learned a lot that day," Tyler says. "I was disappointed."
But since then, the mouths he has "iced out" have done some talking, bringing more referral business through his doors. He's going for quality, not quantity. A few big spenders beat a lot of small-time buyers any day, he says.
"Overland Park [people] expect to fight with you tooth and nail over $50," Tyler says. "One couple told me that mine was the 15th store they'd been to for their engagement rings." Even after he came in with the lowest price, Tyler adds, the couple pressed him over every detail of the jewelry.
"And then a cat will come in here and drop $2,000 on the counter [for a set of teeth] and not bat an eye," he says. "Not bat an eye."
Tyler says he wishes he could sense which sort of customer was approaching the store. If he could, he'd be ready. "I could figure out how to roll with them and know what they want ... get the stereo playing hip-hop when some of these guys come in, and Frank Sinatra when some others come in.... I'm going to do that. I'm going to get that figured out," he says, as if he's suddenly had an epiphany.
Earlier in the week, he'd had another brainstorm. Only half-joking, he'd wondered whether Corner House Jewelers could add a drive-through window for selling gold crowns.
He's more serious about another innovation: capitalizing on the current obsession with spinning wheel rims. He has a prototype -- a tiny silver peace symbol that attaches to two front teeth and spins on "the world's smallest bearing," he says.
"The idea is to show you have so much money that you can afford to blow it on diamonds in your mouth," Tyler says. "I want to take it to the next level."
He reminisces about a recent customer who dropped $1,500 on a diamond nipple ring. This was after getting a full-mouth grille of gold and a diamond navel ring. "He wanted a 40-point stone for his nipple ring, and he wanted 40 more points around that, of round diamonds," Tyler says. "Points on carats are like pennies on a dollar, so that's, like, almost a full carat, in a nipple ring." Another person, he says, might want to invest that kind of money or spend it on the down payment for a car. "But they're not thinking that. They want to outdo each other, and the more diamonds in the tooth, the more prosperity they're throwing off."
Tyler likes to play it cool, but some parts of the business still take getting used to. He tells of the Christmas-buying crowd that filled his store on December 23, when a large, intimidating man came in, pulled his gold "fronts" -- temporary dental jewelry slipped over the teeth rather than medically implanted -- out of his mouth and held them out for Tyler to take for some additional work. The whole room held its breath, Tyler says, as his other customers waited to see if he'd accept the fronts.
"I didn't want to," he admits. Then the man pulled back the fronts. "Oh, wait," he said. "I got some food stuck in here." He slurped at them, then held them back out.
Tyler put out his hand for them.
A year ago, San Francisco jewelers complained that dental bling was a flooded market, with too many merchants and not enough unadorned teeth to ornament. On both coasts, the gold rush may be subsiding. But in Kansas City, the demand for oral sparkle seems to be rising along with the popularity of a grimy brand of rap music called crunk that glamorizes club life and showing off one's wealth.
The surging demand can be attributed partly to the newer market in gold fronts. They're a temporary gold fix -- and a lot less involved than the kind of mouth artwork favored by old-schooler Crawford. A mouth like Crawford's requires a trip to the dentist, where healthy teeth are filed down to stumps before being built back up with gold. If diamonds are involved, the process is longer; the candidate is required to wear a plastic mouth guard over what's left of his teeth while jewelers mount gems on the crowns, sometimes cutting away flecks of gold to catch the light or slicing windows through the gold for the white of what remains of the tooth underneath to peek through. A trip back to the dentist completes the permanent installation.
But gold fronts are different. Workers at jewelry stores have learned to make impressions of healthy teeth in order to create a thin, gold mouthpiece, like a retainer, that slips over existing teeth without altering them. By day, a mild-mannered bank employee can flash a white, unadorned smile. By night, he can head to the club with a mouth full of metal.
Dentists don't like gold fronts. For several years, dental associations have warned about the possible harm caused by substandard metal and the poor hygiene caused by gold fronts. Makers of gold fronts counter that dentists just don't like being cut out of the action. Store owners claim that they've been targeted by meddling government types whose allegiance is to the medical establishment.
So maybe it's not surprising that the owners of Diamonds and Diamonds, a gold-fronts shop in dreary Bannister Mall, seem paranoid.
The store's cases are filled with giant, glittering pendants on thick gold chains, the kind you see weighing down rappers' necks in music videos. Busts of Egyptian princes and heavy Superman logos shine under the lights and the glass. But the most desired product Diamonds and Diamonds sells isn't in the cases.
When a reporter asks the Pakistani operators about gold fronts, the salesmen act like they've been propositioned for a drug sale.
"We don't do that here," one says furtively.
A customer in the shop, a guy in baggy jeans and a jersey, looks at them skeptically. He's here to pick up a previously ordered item. "What am I here for, then?" he asks. The salesmen's eyes examine the carpet until the reporter goes away.
Adrian Gray is less secretive.
Gray, called AG by his friends, is a young, handsome black man who owns a shop called KC Gold Fronts on the basement floor of Bannister Mall. The sign facing the mall says Dis n Dat, because Gray also sells hip-hop-style clothing, mix CDs of club hits, assorted records, and posters -- in other words, this and that. But everyone knows the reason you go to AG is for gold fronts.
"You ready to get iced out?" Gray calls to a couple of high school-age girls who are hovering over a glass case full of teeth. "How much money you got in your pocket?"
Gray's own mouth glitters with princess-cut diamonds on tracks of white gold. A tilted square of white gold fits as a centerpiece, making a little point in the center of his smile. His bottom teeth are encased in a straight strip of white gold. The bottom incisors rise to become two tiny gold fangs. What he has, he says, would run someone $2,700.
"Kansas City sets the trend, and everyone else follows," Gray says from behind his glass counter, where row upon row of plaster casts of teeth are displayed, each with one, two or a row of gold caps on them. The plaster teeth, marked with the names of their owners, are waiting to be picked up and paid for.
"I started as a customer," Gray says. He used to live on the East Coast, but family in KC kept bringing him back. "I was here visiting a club, and I was with some people, and afterwards we went to breakfast. I took my golds out to eat, and the people I was with just fell out. 'We thought those were permanent!' They were still doing it the old way, at the dentist. But if nothing's wrong with your teeth, why would you file them out? Here in KC, we like gold and diamonds. So it took me a few years [after the breakfast] for it to sink in. I started selling gold fronts out of my retail store in Topeka. Then we moved to KC, and it just took off."
Gray's first Kansas City store was in the Landing Mall on Troost in 1989. There, he says, he was getting overcharged on the rent, so he moved to Bannister Mall, where the rent was cheap. In his shop, a big-screen TV plays Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle DVDs for customers waiting their turn to sink their teeth into a tray of plaster goo.
"Keep it in the community," read the fliers he puts out for his store. Gray says he's proud to be a young, black business owner, but he admits that his business is suffering. The main problem, he says, is dentists.
"Dentists get jealous," Gray says. "They throw salt in my game, saying that we don't use real gold or that this hurts people's teeth, when actually it could protect your teeth and it's purely cosmetic."
The Missouri Dental Board says that what Gray is doing is illegal, but it can't discipline Gray, because he is not a licensed dentist. According to Missouri law, taking impressions for the purpose of making a dental apparatus is practicing dentistry. So in February 2004, on the advice of the Greater Kansas City Dental Society, the Missouri Dental Board sent Gray a cease-and-desist letter. The board also notified Jackson County Prosecutor Michael Sanders that Gray could be charged with a Class A misdemeanor.
Sanders tells the Pitch that the state attorney general's office handles dental-board complaints and says he hasn't taken any action against Gray or his business.
Gray hasn't stopped making gold teeth, but in the past couple of weeks, he has removed all of KC Gold Fronts' dental molds from the glass cases. He also has stalled a planned radio advertising campaign. And after initially talking freely with a reporter, Gray suddenly turned down further interviews, saying that it was on his lawyer's advice.
Dr. Ed Kendrick, a dentist and spokesman for the Greater Kansas City Dental Society, warns that wearing gold fronts for extended periods can alter the bite, cause decay to the teeth underneath the metal and harm the gums.
"A fool and his money are soon parted," Kendrick advises. "What's unfortunate is that this is not going to promote health and takes people's resources and further addicts people to cultural aesthetic values that neither serve their health nor their pocketbook. It's unfortunate that we feel so much pressure to fit in that we choose to harm ourselves."
But even Kendrick acknowledges that there's some irony to the dental board's stance. Dentists would prefer that jewelry buyers have their teeth filed down by dentists rather than simply slipping on temporary jewelry. Kendrick admits that some of the loudest critics of gold fronts are dentists who have the most to lose in terms of crown business.
Similar chiding by dental boards in other states has forced stores like Gray's to close up and go online, where there's less regulation.
Christy Velez, a former Kansas Citian who now lives in Nashville, Tennessee, runs the Web site Gangstagold.com. On her site, customers can purchase their own molding kits, which arrive by mail. A customer mixes his or her own plaster, pours it into the accompanying tray, imprints a bite, then mails it back to Velez, who forwards it to a jeweler. She says she does huge business over the Internet, with a surprising number off orders coming from Marines on Navy ships. She brags that she outfitted the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln with gold fronts.
But around the country, she says, gold-fronts stores are being shut down. "Dentists don't believe there are sanitary conditions in these stores," she says. "So there's been a big hype about it. Two or three years ago, there were raids and busts here and in Houston, Miami, New York, Atlanta, all the big gold-fronts cities."
She advises her friends in the business to keep their molds under the counter. "You've got to be low-key about your molds. Keep them in a back room or something. Don't let there be anything for someone to find if they come investigating," she says. But she's not backing down. "Gold teeth changed my life. I'll take being jailed for it, fined for it. I'll stand up for gold teeth until the very end."
Meanwhile, as shops at the Bannister Mall feel the pressure and increasingly go underground, the Ice Boyz of Overland Park say they're looking to take advantage.
With gold-fronts stores running into legal snags, Tyler and his partners say the time is ripe for their newest venture. Encouraged by the response to their Overland Park store, they've been planning a second location closer to their clientele. It will be called Ice Boyz, and it will feature a cushy waiting room outfitted with a music system, video games and hip-hop magazines.
Tyler will continue to focus on gold and platinum crowns made in dental labs. He and Szilvasy don't make gold fronts (though they'll install diamonds in a set if someone else has made them), and they don't want to get near anyone's real teeth. If business has become more difficult for gold fronts, it's only gotten sweeter for anyone who makes gold teeth the old-school way, he says.
Tyler just leased a storefront down the street from the 7th Heaven store at 76th Street and Troost. Launching Ice Boyz there, he says, will be "like getting the Boardwalk in Monopoly."
Whereas a shop like Adrian Gray's KC Gold Fronts might hope to sell $40 gold caps to 20 customers in a day, Ice Boyz will rely on a smaller but steady stream of high rollers. "A lot of people can't afford the permanent work," Tyler says. It's $500 or more per tooth at Corner House. It can get up to being $1,000 a tooth after visiting a dentist and paying his fees.
"People are like peacocks with their body ornamentation," says Szilvasy, whose weathered face and Harley shirts make him look like a biker, not a jeweler. "They place such an importance on it. The drive is almost as strong as that of eating or sleeping."
That's why the two shop owners were happy when 27-year-old Crawford strode into their store a few months ago wearing dark denim and Timberland boots. Tyler says Crawford's style made an immediate impression.
Crawford had a vision for a piece of custom jewelry: a gold snake coiled around a diamond-encrusted gold bullet that would spin, thanks to a tiny battery. Two diamond-studded black dice would rattle around loosely, visible through a little window cut within the bullet. The entire thing would hang from a gold chain. The snake-and-bullet symbol was to be the logo for Crawford's next business venture, a recording studio called Swamp Pitt Studios.
Crawford had first turned to the Pakistani jewelers at Diamonds and Diamonds, but he was unhappy with the diamonds they installed in his gold bullet. The gems were cloudy, Crawford says. He decided to take a chance, more or less randomly, on Corner House, which advertised that it did custom work. Crawford says he liked Tyler's personality so much that he decided that Tyler was the guy who should ice out his teeth as well.
But Crawford is a perfectionist, and he wasn't thrilled with the first few incarnations of his gold grille. One attempt of Tyler's was particularly beautiful: 48 white diamonds in rows, forming stripes with rows of 14 canary-yellow diamonds, all the way across six front teeth. But Crawford had a problem with the shape. The teeth looked flat and indistinguishable from one another, like an NFL player's mouthpiece. The bar looked like one solid chunk that could pop on and off, like gold fronts.
"I knew what it was worth," Crawford says. "But people mistook it for a KC Gold Fronts job. It was worth $15,000 or $18,000, but people thought it was only $2,000. So I had to go back to single crowns. Everyone I know has at least two crowns in their mouth. Fronts are a big no-no. Where I'm from, in urban communities, if you wear a gold front, you get talked about."
Tyler appreciated Crawford's attention to detail. In one month of working with him, Tyler says, he learned more about styling dental jewelry than he had in eight years at the pawnshop. So he asked Crawford to be his partner in Ice Boyz.
Crawford, meanwhile, knows that his own teeth will be the best advertisement for the new store. "It's not like the folks in my neighborhood will stop and point, but some will ask ... to know where you got yours. And girls love it. Girls love to see that smile with all these sparkles coming out of there. You can floss daily as if they were regular teeth. It's perfectly healthy. It's not like you're going to catch gingivitis."
On a recent morning, Crawford sketches new designs in Corner House's back room while Tyler fiddles with a radio at the front of the store. An Eminem song suddenly blasts through the radio's speakers, and Tyler asks Crawford, "Is that what you listen to?"
"No, I listen to stuff that's more hardcore, less commercial," Crawford answers.
"I love hip-hop," Tyler says. "I truly do." But it's clear that he's talking less about music than about economics. Without Crawford, Tyler and Szilvasy would likely struggle to make sense of hip-hop's cosmetic sensibilities.
So is Crawford cool with being the black face for Tyler and Szilvasy's white store?
"That's just how it works," he says. "I can't come down here [to Overland Park] and sell life insurance. Even if I had the best deal, no one's going to buy squat from me. That's how it is. So if we are going to target the urban area, you need someone who can communicate for you, who people will trust. As silly as it is, people are still racist as hell. It's not out in the open, as it was 40 or 50 years ago, but it's unconscious when people do it. So no, Ty wouldn't be able to do this on his own. Would he get some business? Yeah, but to have the optimum effect ... guys who get referred to him by the dentist will walk in and say, 'You're white? Get out of here.'"
And Crawford says Tyler is no exploiter. The young man says Tyler has real respect for him -- particularly after he filled in the jeweler on his past.
In 1994, when he was 17, Crawford was caught driving with a loaded Glock 9 mm semiautomatic pistol. He gave the cops a fake name. Fingerprints revealed his real identity, and he was charged as an adult with armed criminal action.
After that, he says, it seemed like he was hauled into the police station every time an unsolved crime involved a black male in his neighborhood. "It was a wake-up call, finding out you don't even have to be doing anything wrong. If something happens, you don't have to have done it. You get looked at as if you did, and then you get punished for it."
Then, in March 1996, according to court documents, Crawford became angry over a large amount of money that was missing from his room in his father's house. He blamed a group of friends whom he'd been fighting with. Police investigators alleged that Crawford went to an apartment complex where the group of young men had been hanging out at 73rd Street and the Paseo, spotted a car driving away with four of the men inside, and shot at it with a .40-caliber handgun. A bullet pierced the back of the head of the front-seat passenger, 18-year-old Donnell Mitchell. It lodged behind his eyes and killed him.
Crawford denied that he'd committed the crime, but eventually he pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter. According to the Missouri Department of Corrections, Crawford received a deferred sentence and served just 120 days in jail. He'll be on probation until April 2007; one misstep, and he could be ordered to prison to serve his deferred seven-year sentence.
Crawford is aware of what's at stake.
"It took me a long time to get here, but it's all part of God's plan," Crawford says. "I talked to him [Tyler] about my past. I figured he'd rather hear it from me than through a customer who knows me. I have paid for everything I've done and righted my wrongs with the law. There are still a lot of things I'll have to do before I feel completely straight, business-minded. Ty is giving me the opportunity to do that."
Despite the opportunity he finds with the Ice Boyz, Crawford says that his father initially disapproved that his son had gone into business with a white man. "Black people think all white people are out to use them. I don't know what white people think of black people, but black people think that white people will just use us and throw us away. But I'll be one of the only black males in this business, and I'm under 30. There aren't many young, black owners."
Crawford's pencil has gone dull from drawing crown designs, and he asks Szilvasy for a pencil sharpener. Szilvasy whips out a knife from his belt and carves the pencil to a point.
Szilvasy is engraving a model tooth held in a vise. He talks as he works. Four thousand years ago, he says, the Egyptians first figured out how to get the most shine out of gold, increasing a surface's area by affixing little balls of granulated gold to it. He uses gold as his medium the way other artists use oils and pastels. "But I have more flexibility in how I return the light to the viewer," he says. "My palette uses textures and shades of gold and three-dimensional variations. It's a very forgiving medium."
The back room is cramped because, in addition to Szilvasy and Crawford, Tyler employs two apprentices. There's 17-year-old Clayton, Tyler's biological son, and 19-year-old Trenton, a son that Tyler unofficially adopted during a brief marriage to Trenton's mom. Tyler also has a 16-year-old daughter. Today he's married to a Vietnamese woman who runs a nail salon just down the street; they just had a baby girl. The big family is completed by the enormously fat Chihuahua-pug mix that hangs out on a chaise lounge and greets customers at the door. She has an underbite that Tyler is threatening to put diamonds in.
The place gets more cramped with the addition of Phe, a Vietnamese diamond broker who knows Tyler from the pawnshop. He breezes in wearing an appraiser's lens on a loop around his neck and a cell phone wire in his ear. He has come to bring a diamond for inspection.
"This is our new partner," Tyler says, introducing Phe to Crawford. "Treat him like family."
Tyler tells Phe about the plan to open a store in Missouri.
"What's it going to be called?" Phe asks.
"Ice Boyz," Tyler says again. Phe's face stays blank. He's not impressed.
Tyler's Overland Park neighbors don't get it, either, he says.
They think he's crazy.