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Guide to Panning for Gold in Cities

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Raffi Stepanian of Queens, New York, has brought urban prospecting into the public awareness by his unorthodox methods and his particularly lucrative diamond district location. He has made some significant finds that garnered the attention of the media late in 2011. Urban mining the crevasses and gutters of the diamond district of NYC, he has recovered scrap gold, semi-precious gemstones, and even some diamond chips.

Raffi’s success is commendable. However, if you are considering following in his footsteps, you need to examine his methods and see how they can be modified to fit your particular area.

If you are prospecting on a shoestring budget, the tools you need are simple, cheap, and easy to maintain and use – not much more than a putty knife, a bottle to collect the materials, and a basin to wash the recovered slurry that may yield treasure. If you have some money to invest in your business, there are a number of high-tech aids that can vastly improve your chances of success. Good tools will pay for themselves in short order.

Follow the Gold


You know your city and all cities are different. You could find treasure in the most unexpected places. In any case, gold and other precious metals are going to be located in the areas of high foot traffic and especially in areas near jewelry shops that specialize in making or repairing gold items at the premises. Gold particles cling to clothing and drop off in the process of moving.

Sidewalks and gutters that have crevasses that trap debris form natural sluices. Metals are heavier than sand or silt and work themselves down through the lighter materials until they are at the bottom and generally well-covered. Be especially careful when using your hands, especially in urban areas. Broken needles, bits of sharp metal, and other sharp objects can cut you. Use small trowels, dental picks, and flexible metal blades – such as a trowel-shaped painting knife or a palette (also seen spelled “pallat”) knife – to tease out the heavy bits trapped in cracks. A wonderful variety of shapes and sizes of quality wooden-handled palette knives are available online for $50 or less.

Gold is rarely at the top of sidewalk or gutter slurry unless it has just been deposited. Don’t waste your time and energy washing sand. You want to collect and process the thick black goo below the sand layers.

When working with your slurry at home, use a foaming detergent as a surfactant. It acts as a wetting agent and lowers the surface tension of the water, allowing minute floating gold particles to fall through into the slurry below.

Safely Prospecting the Streets of the City

Do yourself a favor. Invest in a reflector vest (you can buy a good cheap one here), a construction worker’s hard hat, a variety of disposable gloves, and sample bottles.

The reflector vest and hard hat serve a dual purpose. They make you visible to traffic and invisible to most pedestrians. No one questions a construction worker on the street when they are working. Most people tend to ignore them completely. If someone asks and you are too busy to talk, you can simply tell them you are a technician collecting samples to test for residual metal particulates.

Commonly known as “frisk gloves,” examination gloves are routinely used by police, paramedics and other first responders needing a thin yet strong and flexible protection for their hands. If Kevlar 6-ply EMT gloves are out of your budget, nitrile examination gloves are relatively inexpensive, disposable, and latex-free. EMT gloves are thinner, more tactile, and only slightly less protective than the 12-ply law enforcement gloves.

Sample bottles and cases are to collect and categorize your slurry. Two-ounce square wide-mouth plastic environmental sample bottles in a heavy-duty impact-resistant satchel case are inexpensive, easy to mark and carry, and widely available online. As you collect slurry samples, label each bottle with the location it was prospected. This will help you to concentrate your efforts on the areas that yield the best results.

Processing the Slurry

In essence, all that is required is a prospector’s gold pan that has built-in ridges to catch the gold so it can be recovered with tweezers. Reducing, processing, and selling gold is beyond the scope of this article, but there are many resources online to answer most common questions.

While urban prospecting seems an easy way to make money, the very nature of the environment almost guarantees diminishing returns as areas become mined out. A true urban prospector needs to be willing to go to where the gold is likely to be found today and not where it was found yesterday.

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