If you think these fancy dental instruments look like they were made for showing off rather than actually doing dentistry, you have a good eye for trickery.

WHAT DO FISH, PEACOCKS, hunting dogs, snakes and flowers have to do with dentistry? You guessed it: not a darn thing. These ornate dental instruments, which date from around 1850, were meticulously crafted from mother of pearl and 18-karat gold. If the inlaid rubies and emeralds, along with embossed images of animals and nature, seem more for show than go, that’s because they were.

Chevalier’s Wholesale, a popular New York–based peddler of the period, puts the truth right on page 2 of its catalog: “The most expert operator, if he would succeed in establishing a clientele, must have something more than his sign, after that has attracted a patient to his office, to inspire confidence. And what, next to a good address and affability, will go so far to secure that as a well-appointed case of instruments? Your first patients, having no other evidence, will generally prejudge your skill by the taste displayed in your office.”

Get the gist? These fancy tools were for showing off. But once patients were sold on treatment, the good doctor would reach for the ordinary, humdrum but practical tools of the trade. Today, state-of-the-art technology like cameras, scanners and 3D pans go a long way toward convincing patients to proceed with treatment. The difference between these new tools and ornate hand instruments, though, is that the new ones serve a very real purpose.

While these mother-of-pearl instruments weren’t worth anything clinically, their monetary value has shot up over the years. A nice set like these can fetch up to $2,500 per instrument at antique dealers and auctions. So if you happen upon an old set in an attic somewhere, grab them. Depending on how many there are, they could end up being your kid’s college fund.

LARRY COHEN, Benco Dental’s chairman and chief customer advocate, has over the past half-century collected hundreds of unique dental artifacts, which reside at Benco’s home office in Pittston, Pennsylvania.