Brace yourself. The tin grin is gone, and in its place is a gem of an idea.
Gone for the modern orthodontic patient are cumbersome metal braces; the latest are made of clear, manufactured sapphire. They were introduced recently by a division of Johnson & Johnson, after having undergone tests for more than a year by 20 doctors around the world.
At its "A"-Company Inc. unit in San Diego, the company developed the Starfire System, which uses sapphire--the material second in hardness only to the diamond--and is virtually invisible within the mouth.
One of those who tested the new treatment system was Dr. Dennis McKee of San Diego.
"I let my patients know that sapphire now is available instead of metal, plastic or ceramic," he said. "Probably 90% of them are choosing it. It is definitely a trend.
"The single wire that holds the brackets in place still shows, but if you are three feet away, you don't notice at all that the wearer has braces.
"In addition to being stainproof, the new braces are resistant to the forces of chewing, and comparable metal brackets would be 30% larger," McKee said.
The synthetic sapphire is made from aluminum oxide crystals heated in furnaces at about several thousand degrees Fahrenheit, Johnson & Johnson spokesman Ed Watson said.
"In contrast to the sapphire that may adorn a ring on your finger, the ones used for the teeth are water-clear rather than having a blue-green color, which is caused by impurities," he said.
Orthodontics is the branch of dentistry that prevents or treats irregular positions of the teeth. More than 1 million Americans begin such treatment each year, according to a spokeswoman for the American Assn. of Orthodontists in St. Louis.
"Furthermore," she said, "a survey in 1982 of our about 10,000 members showed that about 23% of their patient population were adults, ages 18 and older. The figure had doubled in 10 years."
Although appearance-conscious Californians account for 10.8% of the national population, they constitute about 13% of the orthodontist population.
About five years ago the quest began to develop a brace-bracket material that would be clear, strong, not subject to discoloration, and biologically safe, according to Derek Evans, director of marketing and sales for "A"-Company Inc.
Industrially produced sapphire was being used in the glasslike bar-code price readers at supermarket checkout counters, and at least one luxury timepiece manufacturer uses it instead of crystal for its watch faces.
"For our purposes, we custom-make the sapphire brackets for tooth types," Evans said. "We offer 12 distinct types."
Heretofore, the problems with clear brace systems--usually preferred by self-conscious adults--have been discoloration and an inability to stay firmly fastened to the tooth, according to orthodontists. The bracket is that part of the braces that affixes to the teeth.
The average orthodontic care usually lasts about 24 months and costs $2,500 to $4,000, according to McKee in San Diego. He said that Starfire brackets cost about $250 to $400 more.
Sapphire brackets--which have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration--are being used for the front six upper teeth, Johnson & Johnson's Watson reported, and will be available for the remaining teeth by the end of the year.