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The dental gold rush is on

April 26, 2009|Steve Chawkins

For the '49ers, it was gold fever.

For the '09ers, it might just be gold fillings.

The market in dental gold hasn't reached bonanza heights, but people squeezed by the recession are making a few extra bucks by selling old gold caps, bridgework and other bits of what is known in the trade as "dental scrap." Depending on weight and other factors, a gold tooth can go for $50.

Outside the Continental Coin and Jewelry Co. in Van Nuys, an electronic marquee draws prospective sellers by flashing images of money-making opportunities -- a dazzling gold ring here, a bright gold dental crown there.

"If it's gold, we're buying it," said marketing director Jeff Ringer. "You'd be amazed at what people bring in."

To demonstrate, he opened up a gallon-and-a-half plastic bag and poured out an oral El Dorado -- about 5 pounds of glittering gold chunks that had once been in customers' mouths. Most of the booty had been tucked inside sock drawers or jewelry boxes years ago, souvenirs of dental visits when worn gold was popped out or bad teeth pulled.

Almost nobody has his dental work yanked for walking-around money. But people who had nearly forgotten about the shining shards now have come to see them as bite-size profit centers.

Anthony Felino, an engineer who lives in Ventura, was putting a few odds and ends up for sale and generally doing a financial spring cleaning when he sent an Internet-based gold buyer the four teeth his mother-in law had given him.

"I got a check for $80 four days after putting them in the mail," he said.

The Felino family choppers wound up with Lippincott LLC, a 17-year-old Internet gold dealer based in Pennsylvania.

"We're seeing a lot more people from all walks of life looking to liquidate, whether it's a wedding ring or an old crown that was removed by a dentist," said Dan Buerk, a Lippincott vice president.

Buerk estimated his company makes $880,000 annually from dental gold.

When it's still clinging to a tooth, jewelers either hammer out the gold or set the piece in cola overnight to loosen the bond. Then it's refined, melted into ingots and sold back into the commodities market.

The dental scrap business has existed for years, but the combination of a sour economy and high gold prices has served both dealers and customers well. Gold rose above $900 an ounce last week -- less than the record $1,004 it fetched in March 2008 but far more than the lows 10 years ago in the $250 range.

That uphill -- if unsteady -- climb is why gold teeth are showing up regularly on EBay.

Bidding was brisk recently for three teeth posted by Bruce Jenkins, a semi-retired railroad manager in Colorado. He said he found them "in a little container of things I bought for $1 at a garage sale in Denver."

"I stirred my finger around in there and that's when I saw them," said Jenkins, whose auction brought him $173.06.

Gold is used in dental work a lot less than it was when an international agreement fixed its price at $35 an ounce. The gold standard was abandoned by President Nixon in 1971.

"If you want something long-lasting, it's still the best way to go," said Dr. Gary Herman, a San Fernando Valley dentist. "The mouth is a harsh environment, and gold doesn't corrode in it."

Herman said he always offers patients their gold after removing it. "Some say yes, some say no -- yech!" he said. "I haven't noticed an increase in the number of patients requesting it."

Dental gold is 16-karat -- pure gold is 24 -- and must be chemically treated to leach out other metals in the alloy before it's melted down.

"You need a lot of it to make it worth your while," said Los Angeles pawnbroker Sam Shocket, owner of King's Jewelry & Loans and vice president of the Collateral Loan and Second Hand Dealers Assn., a pawnbrokers trade group.

"Dentists come in from time to time with a baggie full of these things," he said.

In Camarillo, dental gold crosses the counter at the George Thompson Diamond Co. as often as four times a week.

"People are hurting for money," said manager Kathleen Thompson. "And I wouldn't call these things keepsakes."

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steve.chawkins@latimes.com

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