The mammalian jaw apparatus is ultimately derived from the first branchial arch derivatives, the maxillary and mandibular processes, and composed of a highly specialised group of structures. Principle amongst these are the skeletal components of the mandible and maxilla and the teeth of the mature dentition. Integral to the development of these structures are signalling interactions between the stomodeal ectoderm and underlying neural crest-derived ectomesenchymal cells that populate this region. Recent evidence suggests that in the early mouse embryo, regionally restricted expression of homeobox-containing genes, such as members of the Dlx, Lhx and Gsc classes, are responsible for generating early polarity in the first branchial arch and establishing the molecular foundations for patterning of the skeletal elements. Teeth also develop on the first branchial arch and are derived from both ectoderm and the underlying ectomesenchyme. Reciprocal signalling interactions between these cell populations also control the odontogenic developmental programme, from early patterning of the future dental axis to the initiation of tooth development at specific sites within the ectoderm. In particular, members of the Fibroblast growth factor (Fgf), Bmp, Hedgehog and Wnt families of signalling molecules induce regionally restricted expression of downstream target genes in the odontogenic ectomesenchyme. Finally, the processes of morphogenesis and cellular differentiation ultimately generate a tooth of specific class. Many of the same genetic interactions that are involved in early tooth development mediate these effects through the activity of localised signalling centres within the developing tooth germ.