On a quiet afternoon in September, customers at the palatial Houston jewelry store Johnny Dang & Co. on Richmond Avenue peered into glass display cases shimmering with engagement rings, Rolexes, and bejeweled dog tags. Suddenly, Johnny Dang, instantly recognizable as the store’s namesake and proprietor, strolled in, turning heads. After he welcomed me to the store, we headed to his gilded back office, where he offered me a cognac and then took a seat in his throne-like chair.
While Dang makes many kinds of jewelry, he’s best known around town for fashioning grills, the retainer-like tooth coverings that are usually made of gold, silver, or stainless steel and inlaid with precious stones. The accessories, which first started appearing in rappers’ mouths in the eighties, are a ubiquitous presence in hip-hop culture—and Houston helped put them on the map. Dang has a reputation for making high-quality pieces at a steady clip, producing five hundred to seven hundred grills a week, many of them for hip-hop royalty like Beyoncé (she has a diamond-and-gold vampire-fang grill).
Dang’s path to this profitable niche started humbly. Now in his mid-forties, he immigrated to Houston from Vietnam with his family in 1996 and quickly started working in a cousin’s jewelry shop in the Greater OST / South Union area. “I learned in Vietnam, so when I came here, I started right away—actually, the second day after I arrived, I went to the flea market with my cousin so I could help him to do jewelry repair,” he said.
Dang—who before moving had never heard so much as a note of hip-hop; in Vietnam, one of the only American artists he knew of was Michael Jackson—began connecting with flea market customers who were involved in local hip-hop scenes. He built a clientele, much of it by word of mouth, and in 1998 opened his own store, in the Sharpstown Mall.
One day a dental assistant, a client of his, brought Dang a solid gold grill and a special request. Back then, dentists could outfit patients with grills, but adding stones to them wasn’t common. “She asked me, ‘Hey, Johnny, can you put a diamond on the teeth?’ ” he remembered. “I said, ‘Yeah, I’m a jeweler. Let me try.’ ” Dang was then flooded with requests from people wanting similar grills. “Nobody could believe that when they smiled, all the diamonds [were] in there,” he said.
Soon after, the Houston rapper Paul Wall asked Dang to make a grill for him—the first one Dang created himself. Wall became an unofficial spokesperson for Dang, and the two later started making grills for musicians together. They worked in tandem, with Wall taking molds of clients’ teeth and placing orders and Dang customizing grills.
Spotting an opportunity to grow his business even further, Dang began showing up at nightclubs, like Coco Loco, and rap concerts, where he’d pay DJs for promotional shout-outs. He soon connected with other up-and-coming rappers like Chamillionaire, Slim Thug, and Mike Jones, who commissioned him to make gold necklaces. Dang cut deals for rising artists that most other jewelers wouldn’t, making them affordable pieces in hopes they’d continue to come to him for their jewelry needs. And they did. “That’s why I work seven days a week, eighteen hours a day,” said Dang, “because I kept seeing that this is really an opportunity.”
In 2005, Wall had his big break with the release of his second album, The Peoples Champ. Suddenly the two were getting requests from the likes of P. Diddy and Kanye West. The pair even appeared in the video for Nelly’s 2005 number one hit “Grillz”: Wall had a verse in the song, and Dang danced in the video. That brought in a lot of business. “Right after the ‘Grillz’ song, I never stopped,” Dang said. “I never thought, ‘Oh yeah, this is enough.’ ”
Dang currently has three locations: the original, in PlazAmericas (formerly the Sharpstown Mall); a bigger store on Richmond Avenue, close to the Galleria area; and an outpost in Vietnam. He employs about 75 workers (42 are jewelers, who use automated diamond-setting machines and engraving tools). Dang now mostly oversees the business and rarely crafts jewelry himself. But some customers request that he personally work on their grills, like Houston-bred rapper Travis Scott, who called Dang earlier this year to request a special birthday grill.
Aspiring local musicians still come to him for grills too. “I came from nothing and [own] one of the biggest jewelry stores today,” Dang said, “so if I can do it, they can do it. I hope for them to look at me as a symbol. I want them to look at me and think, ‘This is the American dream.’ ”