Dazzled by the bull market in gold, people are digging through drawers for old dental caps, fillings and bridgework they saved years ago and selling them at prices that would make the tooth fairy blush.
Instead of hanging on to the pieces as souvenirs, many are turning them over to pawnbrokers, coin shops and specialized firms that buy "dental gold," hoping to take a bite out of the metal's historic run to $1,000 an ounce.
"People are really cashing in. If a dentist passes away, their kids come in with a big pile of gold teeth," said Scott Taber, owner of Taber Coins, a Shrewsbury, Mass., coin dealer that buys dental gold and then resells it to a gold smelter.
He said he used to see only a few customers a month selling gold teeth but now gets that many each week. "People are digging up the gold and starting to sell it," he said.
A gold crown typically uses about one-tenth of an ounce of 16-karat gold, which would fetch around $40 to $50 at today's prices, Taber said. Heavier pieces of dental gold can command prices of several hundred dollars, he said.
That deal sounds pretty good to people like Ann Davis, a 63-year-old retiree in Rock Island, Ill., who had gold caps and a bridge removed nearly 40 years ago and has held on to them ever since.
"You don't want to throw it away because it might be worth something," she said. "Now that gold's going up it's time to think about selling."
Gold prices have been surging since late last year as the weak dollar, record crude-oil prices and fears of a U.S. recession have enhanced its appeal as a haven for investors.
Gold set a record of $1,038.60 an ounce on March 17 and has since fallen to about $920, but experts say it could soon resume its upward climb. Several precious metals analysts have even predicted $2,000 gold ahead as a global commodities boom pushes the price of raw materials further into record territory. That would roughly equal gold's inflation-adjusted high of the 1980s.
Gold crowns, fillings and bridgework are usually made of 16-karat gold, an alloy that contains other metals such as silver, zinc and copper. That made gold dental work soft enough to shape but hard enough to form a biting surface.
Gold is still used to make some crowns, but fillings today are more commonly made of other substances, such as less expensive mercury amalgam or more cosmetically attractive polymer compounds.
"There's a lot of people my age who have excess gold teeth and they don't know what to do with them," said Davis, who stashed her dental gold in a bank safe deposit box and recently began looking online for ways to sell it.
"They must be valuable or otherwise the dentist wouldn't give them to you in a bag."
Recycling dental work isn't just a U.S. phenomenon. The Japan Denture Recycle Association, which started in December 2006, has recycled 30,000 dentures and raised about $176,500 for charity.
Dentures use parts made of gold, silver, palladium and other precious metals, and the project's leader estimates all the dentures discarded in Japan each year could raise nearly $70 million.
But don't expect to get rich hawking gold fillings and crowns.
Dr. Parviz Azar-Mehr, a dental specialist who runs a private practice in Westwood, Calif., said he often gives patients the dental gold he removes but says it's rarely enough to sell.
"Usually the amount of gold is so little that it's not significant," Azar-Mehr said.
And replacing a gold crown isn't cheap. Newer porcelain and gold crowns can cost $500 to $3,000 apiece, and not all insurance companies will pay for the procedure.
Besides the financial benefit, Taber says people don't mind selling dental gold because it's far less emotional than parting with heirlooms like grandma's wedding ring or the family silverware.
"I haven't seen anybody with sentimental teeth," Taber said.