Juju Smith Schuster and Greg Grillz (left)
Like many millennia, my introduction to Grillz (which is indeed the correct spelling) came about when I saw Nelly’s 2005 music video of the same name.
They were fascinating; small bands of gold, silver and platinum – of all things with diamonds! – cover the teeth of the coolest artist of the year. Everyone wanted one. And nobody could afford one.
(Except for the kids who wrapped aluminum foil around their teeth and pretended it was a grill, but I digress …)
Only now, more than fifteen years later, have the kids who longed for those grillz grown up and the industry is booming.
From Beyonce’s golden peekaboo grill on the cover of Homecoming to the steady growth in popularity of the accessory on social media (over 500,000 #grillz selfies tagged and counting on Instagram), Grillz are taking a big bite out of the jewelry market.
And with tens of thousands of dollars for a high-end set, grill makers reap the rewards.
One example of this is LA-based celebrity jeweler Greg Zaks, also known as Greg Grillz, who just partnered with Steelers’ broad recipient JuJu Smith-Schuster for a range of custom grillz and trinkets for grillz.com.
Zaks, who leads the website’s creative lead, has made a name for himself making custom grillz for many of Hollywood’s biggest stars (Justin Bieber, Hailey Bieber, Bryson Tiller, Ty Dolla Sign, Post Malone, Jake Paul, and others).
However, as a college dropout with little more than sales experience, his start in the industry was almost accidental.
“I reconnected with a friend of mine who started a jewelry brand and did a really good job,” says Zaks. “He was like the Don on Instagram in 2013 – he made some trinkets for celebrities like the Kardashians. He hired me to run his business which wasn’t a match in the long run, but it inspired me to get out there and start my own company with all I learned. “
Focusing on little more than ambition and talent, Zaks soon realized that it would take a lot more than great products to make a name for himself in the wider jewelry market.
“Many of these big jewelry brands are cross-generational and function like a dynasty,” he says. “They have grandparents, fathers, mothers, cousins who walk them through the process and make it easier along the way. I didn’t and that was a huge hurdle – it made it very difficult to grow in the first few years. “
Even so, he insisted and decided that the only way to break the mold was to mesh as hard as possible and make as many connections as possible to establish yourself.
“I went through so many difficulties in my early years in business,” he admits. “There were times when I was extremely skeptical that I would make it.”
As a young company involved in high-quality luxury items, something as small as a customer who changed their order or didn’t pay on time was threatening to fill up in business. “Blowing money and working with limited cash flow is difficult for any business to deal with.
“It was tough, but I tried to stay smart and face adversity with a positive outlook. I had no choice but to succeed. “
Finally, with a shrewd plan for celebrity and influencer public relations, the odds turned in Zak’s favor.
“Celebrity collaborations helped propel me to where I am now,” he says. “That helped me gain notoriety and recognition in an industry that normally eats as a dog.
“When I started, I didn’t have the money to spend on traditional advertising campaigns. So it was all about using celebrities for social media shoutouts in exchange for free jewelry and free grillz. This type of tit is very important in times when social media is king. “
When it comes to influencers, Zaks prides itself on working with Logan and Jake Paul as some of the most important to the growth of Grillz.com. “Logan hired me early on to make a permanent diamond knuckle ring for his parrot Maverick, which he built his entire brand from. It was very special that I could do this for him. “
Similarly, ongoing collaborations with NFL star JuJu Smith-Schuster have not only increased the brand’s visibility and credibility, but also brought Zaks a new business partner.
Juju Smith cobbler
The couple have acquired a corresponding stake in the future of grillz.com and will work together on many future collections.
Smith-Schuster tells me that’s what he’s wanted to do since he was first introduced to Zaks while playing soccer at USC. “He offered to make me grillz and I thought it was really cool because that’s what I’ve always wanted,” he says (sure, Nelly has it too).
The first piece Zaks made for the broad recipient was simple but stylish – a gold bottom with fangs – and earned him a customer and friend for life.
“Greg made some incredible pieces for me that I love,” he says, suggesting that his jewelry taste has waned alongside his career (he was the first player in NFL history to score five touchdowns before his 21st birthday ). “The first piece he made for me was a pendant we call ‘In God We Trust’, but he also made an amazing piece for my dog Boujee. It’s an icy chain that cost me nearly $ 50,000. ”
And when Zaks’ own star rose and earned him the nickname Greg Grillz, Smith-Schuster decided he wanted to join.
“I think the jewelry and grill industries are growing,” he says. “I’ve seen a lot of different jewelers and people post unique pieces on social media and I’ve found there is real demand – and people who make a living.
“What I’ve always loved about creating pieces with Greg, especially when he makes pieces for me, is that he always does exactly what I’m looking for. He’s a super collaborative creator so it was obvious that it would be a seamless process to work together. “
Surprisingly, the collaboration wasn’t difficult to balance with his NFL career either. “Many athletes wear jewelry and grillz – and also have side jobs, so that our collaboration works perfectly.”
I ask if he thinks jewelry, or fashion in general, could ever be more than a sideline.
“Absolutely!” He beams: “It’s something that interests me very much. It’s just fun to have nice things that I haven’t always had, and I think there is a synergy between sports and fashion.
“I always look to the future. We only want to take over in 2021. We constantly strive for great things with Greg and we are partners in his brand and take it to a whole new level. I can not wait any longer. “
Greg Zaks, aka Greg Grillz, and Juju Smith-Schuster