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GLEAM OF GOLD LIGHTS UP SMILE But decay may lie behind surface of fashion fad

Few words were spoken when Jerome Broady and Peggy Sneed fell for each other. Words weren't needed; he flashed a smile, and she melted. She grinned, and he knew she was the right woman.

When Mr. Broady smiled, his two front teeth gleamed with gold, one with a star. Only one of Ms. Sneed's teeth sparkled, but its glow caught his eye.

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"I knew that she was what I was about when I saw it. We had something in common right off," Mr. Broady said. "She had a nice face, but what set it off was that gold. That just made me say 'Yeah, she's all right with me.' "

Ms. Sneed found a deeper meaning in Mr. Broady's golden smile.

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"It showed me he was a man of substance, someone [who] wants a lot of things and plans to go out and get it," Ms. Sneed said. "The gold said a lot."

The couple, both 25, enjoy golden moments together.

But not all teeth that sparkle are golden. What often appears to be a gold tooth is actually a gold-colored tooth cover -- called a sleeve or cap -- made of brass or copper.

The gold sleeves are primarily for cosmetic reasons. One local dentist likened them to cheap jewelry that "makes your skin turn green if you leave it on too long."

The American Dental Association warned that because the existing tooth must be filed and altered for the gold sleeve to fit, the cap will ruin the tooth and possibly cause gum disease later.

But that possibility didn't stop Carl Coffman from getting "a gold" with a star cut out.

"It's something I wanted for a long time, and not because my friends have them," said Mr. Coffman, 18, of East Baltimore. "It makes me want to smile more because it's fancy like jewelry, but it's more permanent."

Several of his friends have gold caps, Mr. Coffman said, including one who has a combination of gold- and silver-capped teeth filling his mouth. The sleeves range in price from $25 to $100 and are available in many inexpensive jewelry and clothing stores.

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"I don't know anybody who has real gold in their mouth, just the caps," Mr. Coffman said. "I don't even know if they make real golds."

The mouths of celebrities such as rapper Flavor Flav, boxer Mike Tyson and professional basketball player Larry Johnson may be adorned with real gold, but it is unlikely, dentists said.

"Gold is the best material to use for dental work, but the gold teeth you see on most people is not gold at all," said Dr. Richard H. Price, a practicing dentist who also works in the consumer affairs division of the American Dental Association.

"It's just something that will eventually ruin their teeth and mouths."

The gold sleeves come in a variety of eye-catching models, including some emblazoned with dollar signs, champagne glasses, initials, suit symbols for cards, stars, moons (all phases) and various designs.

Men and women of various ages said they find the gold "sleeves" at local stores and have a dentist install them or attempt to do it themselves, which is not recommended by dentists.

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When installed by a dentist, the sleeve is cemented to the tooth. Nonprofessionals have tried to wedge them between teeth.

Robert Fredrickson, who has a gold sleeve with a heart on one of his front teeth, said he squeezed the cap over his tooth and between adjacent teeth before having it put on properly by a dentist.

"It kept coming off when I ate, or sometimes when I was talking," said Mr. Fredrickson, 23, who has had a gold for five years. "I was talking to this girl once, and it started slipping, and I had to use my tongue to push it up. I think she saw it falling."

Mr. Fredrickson's problem now is that he doesn't want the gold sleeve taken off because his tooth is brown and looks decayed. "It's become embarrassing, and I don't have the money for a denture. So the gold's going to be on for a long while."

Dr. Katherine G. Collier, a dentist for 14 years, said she, like many dentists, refuses to fit patients with gold teeth. "I'm concerned about hygiene. The tooth decays under that gold-looking thing," she said. "A gold tooth would be better because it's custom made for you. But these aren't."

If the gold sleeve is not properly fitted, particles of food and bacteria can get between it and the tooth and cause tooth damage, Dr. Collier said.

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Many patients now are asking to have gold teeth removed.

"I'm glad to do that. I love doing that. I get real excited when I do that," Dr. Collier said.

Jerry Clay of East Baltimore got his gold tooth with an ace of spades in it two decades ago, when he was 16. One of his brothers has a gold featuring a champagne glass, and another has one with a half moon.

Now, at 37, he regrets having the gold tooth. Its only redeeming factor, he says, is that women seem to like it.

"It's still me and will always be me," Mr. Clay said. "The gold doesn't matter. People look at me, the person."


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