Dental payment plan: Patients selling gold from mouths

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Allen Rowe, president of Northern Nevada Coin, is used to the steady stream of customers that comes into his Carson City store to sell their old gold rings, necklaces and other jewelry.

But lately Rowe and owners of other businesses that buy scrap gold have seen a huge increase in customers coming in and selling old dental gold.

With gold selling at more than $1,800 an ounce, trading in old gold crowns and bridges has become big business. The largest transaction conducted at Northern Nevada Coin for old dental gold: more than $70,000, Rowe says.

"We see dental gold daily - we actually buy quite a large amount of it. Really there is not a day that goes by that we don't buy some."

Old dental gold typically comes from gold crowns or bridgework that had to be replaced. Dentists usually offer the gold to their patients, says Dr. Mary Papez-Berg, a Reno dentist, but if they don't want it the gold accumulates at dentist offices over the years.

Several northern Nevada dentists have cashed in from years of saving old gold crowns to the tune of $30,000 to $50,000, Rowe says. His largest purchase of $70,000 came from a son who inherited the gold from his father's longtime dentistry practice.

"That was a career's worth," Rowe says. "If a customer saves it they usually get between $50 and $500, but those who say, 'Just dispose of it' the dentist will cash it in later."

Jacob Peterson, owner of Reno Gold Exchange inside the Wells Fargo bank building in downtown Reno, says the amount of gold in the teeth varies but usually runs around 16 carats. Eighteen carat gold is 75 percent pure, he says. Reno Gold Exchange pays up to 85 percent of the current scrap gold price, and customers are averaging anywhere from $80 to $200 for old gold crowns. Extensive bridgework containing more gold usually pays slightly higher.

Purchases of gold teeth and similar small gold items have tripled, Peterson says. His last large purchase was from a dentist who had more than $5,000 in gold teeth. The scrap gold Reno Gold Exchange takes in usually is melted down and used to fill orders for computer parts, though some is used for bullion and to make new jewelry.

"Right now, the gold market is similar to housing market - if you have stuff you don't wear it's probably best to take advantage of this opportunity," he says. "The way the jewelry market works is that if you buy retail there is a huge markup. Right now, with old stuff you don't wear anymore, you probably can get your money back."

Dentists say customers usually can specify whether they want gold or porcelain crowns - though lab costs to make gold teeth have risen about 40 percent in the past year, says Dr. Jason Champagne of Champagne Family Dentistry in Sparks.

Gold is still the gold standard for restorative work, Champagne, adds, but newer porcelain materials have closed the gap as far as longevity and durability. Aesthetics are the main reason why many patients choose white porcelain over yellow gold, he says.

Also, Champagne can manufacture a porcelain crown at his office and have the work completed in a few hours rather than shipping a mold of the crown to a lab for refining.

"I can do it in one day," he says. "That is a big benefit for a lot of patients, and the newer porcelains are much, much stronger."

Champagne says more patients who need restorative work are taking home their old gold teeth than ever before - five years ago no one even asked for it, he says. Gold crowns can last for dozens of years, but sometimes older dental work needs to be replaced if the gold has worn through or if the edges have decayed.

"If you have got a breakdown you have to replace it," Champagne says. "You have to have the margins closed with whatever restorative you are using, either porcelain or gold. It has to butt up against the edge of the tooth and create a good seal."

Papez-Berg says gold often is used when there isn't enough clearance to use a porcelain crown, which is slightly thicker because it is layered over a metal base. The most common area for gold crowns, she says, is on the rearmost molars. But even then, some patients specify porcelain.

"A lot of people just don't want metal in their mouth anymore - they feel it ages them," she says.


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