As reported by The Hartford Courant, April 23, 2008.

Bite of Passage

By Janice Podsada

Aesthetically pleasing and functional, the creations of Gary Lavigne may be the ultimate in wearable art.

Not only are they intended to inspire confidence, they can summon the courage to ask for a second helping at dinner.

"I think of every denture I make as a little sculpture," said Lavigne, the owner of Precision Dental Laboratory in Hartford.

A natural-looking, good-fitting pair of dentures not only improves a person's bite, but also their outlook on life, said Lavigne, 58.

"I've been in old-age homes and seen patients there that don't want to live," Lavigne said. "We make them a new pair of dentures and they perk up. If you can eat and look good, people tend to be happier."

In an airy, well-lit workshop on Park Street, Lavigne and two employees repair dental appliances and fill prescriptions from local dentists and doctors for removable dentures and partial plates. But increasingly it seems as if denture-making is becoming a lost art, Lavigne said. He said that in recent years, business has fallen by 50 percent.

"Ten years ago, I employed eight people. Now I'm down to two," said Lavigne, who estimates he has made at least 100,000 dentures in the 38 years he's been a dental technician.

Several factors have contributed to the decline. Fewer people wear removable dentures. Dentists and patients are increasingly opting for fixed bridges and crowns, Lavigne said.

With an emphasis on preventive dentistry and better overall oral health, more people are keeping their teeth, said Dr. Thomas Taylor, head of the Department of Reconstructive Sciences at the University of Connecticut School of Dental Medicine in Farmington. During the 1930s, for example, "it was abnormal to find someone over 50 with their natural teeth," Taylor said.

In the past 25 years, titanium implants have become an alternative to removable dentures. With permanent implants, the teeth are anchored to the jawbone rather than resting on the tissues, as with dentures. But it can be a costly smile — up to $50,000 for a full set of uppers or lowers, vs. $1,500 to $2,500 for dentures. It's also an option few insurance companies will reimburse, Taylor said.

The good news, if you can call it that, is that the demand for false teeth is expected to rise as millions of baby boomers find themselves in need of dentures, Taylor said.

"The percentage of people who wear dentures has declined," Taylor said, "but in absolute numbers, it's increasing."

Even though the demand for removable dentures is expected to rise, Precision Dental and other small dental laboratories are feeling the pinch from both large-scale domestic dental laboratories and overseas manufacturers.

"It's getting harder for the little guys to compete," Lavigne said.

In recent years, finding skilled technicians, or even people willing to learn the trade, hasn't been easy.

"Young people don't want to get into it," Lavigne said. "It's not super-glamorous."

Making dentures is both an art and a science, said Vjollca Neti, who has worked at Precision Dental for nine years. Sculpting hot wax into a custom-made, natural-looking set of pink gums requires an artistic touch, Neti said.

"I was an architectural designer in Albania. What I'm doing here is artwork," Neti said as she pressed the tip of a soldering iron into a wax mold to reshape the gumline. Once the patient is fitted with a wax version of the denture and adjustments are made, it's cast in acrylic.

The dentist will usually prescribe the size and color of the teeth, depending on the patient's natural coloring. A set of pearly whites on some patients might look as phony as a gold cap. As a result, the dental lab typically stocks more than 50 shades of false teeth designed to match a patient's natural coloring.

And just as beauty can be more arresting when it's slightly askew — Michelangelo's David has a head that's too big for his body — perfection can be a dead giveaway that someone is sporting false teeth, Lavigne said.

"We twist and turn the teeth a little so they look natural," he said. "We're not making dentures; we're duplicating nature."

Lavigne's career as a dental technician began when he answered an ad for a laboratory technician almost 40 years ago.

"I had just graduated from college and I needed a job," he said. "I found out I was good at it."

Twenty years ago, Lavigne started his own dental laboratory with a $10,000 investment. "You make a little money, you buy another piece of equipment," he said. "In a good year, we'll make about $300,000 in revenue."

"They do a wonderful job," said Dr. Ruth Goldblatt, dental director of Hebrew Health Care in West Hartford. Dentures are important not only for oral health, but for a person's sense of self, said Goldblatt, the majority of whose patients live in nursing homes.

"I have made dentures for patients who no longer eat, who eat through a tube, but need them for social reasons," Goldblatt said.

At one point, the health care center was using a large Midwestern lab to make and repair dentures, she said.

"Patients were going two to three weeks without their dentures. I can call Gary up in the morning, and they'll come pick them up and repair them the same day," Goldblatt said. "I don't want my patients to be without their teeth for a week."

For some patients, that kind of turnaround is more than just convenience, she said.

"I had a patient who wouldn't come out of his room without his teeth. And some patients with really bad dementia can lose the skill to wear their dentures in a week. That kind of service can mean a lot to patients and their family members."