Antsy crowds formed long lines at Chattanooga-area gold buyers Wednesday, as consumers struck by gold fever rushed to sell old jewelry, coins and even teeth.
The bling blitz, which has been ongoing for several months, gained steam as world gold prices vaulted above $1,800 per ounce for the first time.
That news, announced as stock, bond and currency markets struggled for footing, signaled that the shiny yellow metal still is a reliable safe haven for nervous investors.
In Chattanooga, Robert Westenhaver and his wife, Miriam, turned in $525 worth of gold on Wednesday at Rick Davis Gold & Diamonds.
"We turned in some pieces of Mariam's old teeth that she had, and I turned in my class ring of 1957," Robert Westenhaver said. "Hey, the market's high, this is a good time."
With their daughter's marriage coming up on Sept. 10 and relatives arriving from all over the country, the time was ripe to pick up some cash, he said.
"Maybe if we had waited, it might have been worth more, but I'm 72 and I don't need to do that," Westenhaver said.
But how high will gold go?
Sellers who hold on too long could miss cashing out at the top of the bubble, and those who sell early may suffer seller's remorse if prices climb higher.
"A lot of people think it's going to go to $5,000 an ounce, and they don't want to miss it," said Don Smith, manager at Southern Bullion Coin & Jewelry.
Gold once hit $850 an ounce in the early 1980s, he said, or about $2,320 in today's dollars, before the country climbed out of that economic malaise and reached record levels of prosperity later in the decade.
That drove the price of gold back down, a financial disaster for investors who bought at the peak, though it was good news for the country as a whole.
Rick Davis, owner of his namesake, Rick Davis Gold & Diamonds, said the number of customers coming through his door has quadrupled since the price of gold hit $1,600 about a month ago.
"The last few days, it's probably jumped another 60 percent," Davis said.
Davis, who has been in the gold-buying business for 36 years, said part of the reason for the rush is that consumers realize that an eventual market correction is inevitable, and they're hoping to sell their jewelry before the price drops.
"The correction is going to come as the economy gets better," Davis said.
Smith said he plans to melt down most of the gold items turned in by customers.
"We refine it into bars and sell it to the government," he said.
Of course, he doesn't pay the market rate to customers, because that would leave him no profit margin when selling the gold back to the federal government, which then doles it back out to jewelers and coin makers.
Gold buyers generally run 5 percent profit margins, he said, making most of their money on volume rather than individual sales.
"You can't pay the market rate because you've got to refine it, and pay to operate the business," he said.
Lewis Revels, owner of Chattanooga Coin, said he doesn't expect the price of gold to fall until the U.S. economy gets back on track.
"Until that happens, I don't really see a top to gold," Revels said.