A few weeks ago, a former sailor walked into the Georgetown Jewel Gallery with a handful of newly extracted gold teeth.
"He said he needed money really badly and he told me he had his bridgework removed," said owner Jac King. "He was rather toothless."
That didn't stop King from paying the man between $75 and $100 for his upper bridge and several smaller pieces.
While the tale is a little unusual, sales of teeth lined with gold are not, according to several local jewelers. As the price of gold has soared on world markets, more people are digging into forgotten drawers -- and sometimes into their mouths -- to retrieve teeth and other items made of the precious metal.
The American Dental Association, though, takes a dim view of panning for gold in a mouth.
"It's ridiculous for anyone to think about having their teeth pulled for gold because they are not going to recover anything." Dr. John Stanford, secretary of the association's council for dental materials, said in a telephone interview from Chicago.
Dentists use a combination of 16-to 18-carat gold and alloy in making crowns, inlays and bridges. Crowns and inlays are used to repair broken teeth, while bridges are used to replace missing teeth. Gold is not used in fillings, however.
The average amount of gold in a false tooth is one and one-half penny-weights or .075 of an ounce. So a person with a gold tooth probably has about $30 worth of gold in his mouth, according to jewelers and dentists.
While it costs between $20 and $25 to have a crown extracted and about $65 for a bridge, most dentists will insist on replacing the teeth, Stanford said. Then it gets expensive -- $150 to $300 for a crown and $325 and up for each tooth in a bridge, according to Stanford and local dentists.
Though it doesn't pay to have teeth pulled simply to sell them, it can pay to trade in false teeth that have been discarded.
Sales of teeth with gold have boomed since the price of gold took off -- from $35 an ounce in 1970 to $226 an ounce at the beginning of the year to a record of $465 Friday in New York.
"We're buying more [teeth] now because people realize the value," said Paul Sims of Midas Coins in Annandale.
Sims said the shop used to buy only five or six ounces of dental gold a week, but now his purchases have quadrupled.
Sally Duhose of Shaw and Dussinger jewelers at 1613 I St. NW said, "When gold prices first started going up two months ago, four people with gold from their teeth came to sell it."
Cornelius Zwennes, whose shoip is at 1319 Connecticut Ave. NW, said he is seeing more customers who want to sell dental gold -- mostly elderly persons who appear to be selling their bridgework because they need money.
Daniel Diener of Diener-Jackson Jewelers at 1710 M. St. NW, said he sees two kinds of customers: "Older people who really need the money to survive and the people who have teeth to sell because someone died in the family. You generally get it back from the undertaker and they immediately come [down to the store]."
But William Lee, president of local chapter of the National Association of Funeral Directors, said it would be unusual for an undertaker to extract gold teeth and that he would refuse to perform such a service.
Many jewelers require customers to remove the gold themselves because they don't want to handle the teeth.
"They won't hold it in their hands or knock it out," said Diener, describing the reaction of his workers to gold in teeth.
When such a customer walks in, Diener said, "Everybody here runs the other way but me. I've been dealing with it for 20 years."
While Washington jewelers report that few dentists come to them to sell gold (they usually sell directly to gold refineries), a New York gold dealer said he has several dentists in his clientele.
The dealer, Jack Brod, said the widow of a dentist recently walked into his shop on the 66th floor of the State Building with 30 ounces of dental gold. She walked away with $12,000.