The Search for Gold, Silver, Platinum Groups & Gemstones


You probably thought this was going to be about some weirdo hippie telling you how meditation & gold panning will lead you to a more peaceful, productive and happy life.  Nope! Gold panning can be fun for some, but for most of us, it's a pain in the back. If you purchased a gold pan & it didn't come with any instructions, here's how to operate  that delicate piece of machinery.

Luckily for those of us who are mechanically declined, gold pans do not have buttons, meters, scales, electronics, etc. In the old days, prospectors used their tin dinner plates - it was a way to pay for dish washing - and most prospectors just learned on their own. Today, space age plastic pans make gold panning a little easier.

Shorty the gold panner takes his dinner plate to pan in Rock Creek.

To start with, you are not going to get rich panning. A gold pan is just a tool to help you possibly find a gold, ruby, sapphire, or diamond deposit. You cannot process enough material to make a living with a pan. Second, make sure you have a strong back and find the most comfortable place you can find and sit down. Don’t squat like many people in old photos - these people were not really panning - they were posing. Sit on the bank, take off your shoes & socks and put your feet in the water, or wear water proof boots as you pan. If you are in an area where people fish, keep your boots on.

In addition to your gold pan, you will find that  a grizzly pan (a pan with ~ quarter inch holes drilled in the pan) will help. This should fit inside your gold pan. You may even want to take some fly screen that is as large as the gold pan – these latter two items are for screening (seiving). Next you need a shovel to dig material from the stream or from the stream bank, a 10 power hand-lens so you can see all of that gold you find, and if you are in bear country, don’t forget you are not as high on the food chain as that bear, so you might consider a gun - maybe a big gun because bears tend to sneak up behind you while you are panning.

Here's one of those puzzling photos seen in just about every book on gold panning. You may want to know how did the prospector recover so much gold in a pan and how come the gold always comes in little vials. Actually, this gold was found along Rock Creek, Wyoming, and it was recovered using a backhoe, dozer and trommel. The gold pan was used as a backdrop for the photo.

Gold panning is just another simple lesson of physics. Thanks to gravity and fluid dynamics we can pan gold on earth, but not on the space station. The minerals you will be working with in your pan have unique specific gravities (distinct weights for their volume), thus gravity will pull more on those minerals with higher specific gravity (such as gold) and drag them down to the surface of the gold pan. The gravel you are going to pan needs to be permeated with water until it behaves like a fluid, thus you will need to stir up the dirt with your hands after placing it in your pan  as you keep it all under water. If there is any gold in your gravel, it should be freed to settle to the bottom of the pan. Remember, gold is 15 to 19 times heavier than an equivalent volume of water and it is ~7 times heavier than quartz.

Now place the grizzly in your gold pan (not the bear, but the sieve). If you have fly screen, you can place it between the pan & grizzly. Fill the grizzly with gravel & next place the pans and sieves under water working the finer-grained material through the holes in the grizzly. Soon you will have material larger than the quarter inch sitting on your grizzly while everything else should work its way through. Look for large nuggets and diamonds. If you have any sitting on the grizzly, be sure to call me. If you don’t, place this waste material in a pile on the stream bank (this will be a measure of how much material you can pan through in an hour or a day (this is only for your own information). Now you can do the same with the fly screen, or you can skip this part altogether.

Sometimes people are visited by moose when they pan. Moose are not pets so don't feed them, they may want to use you for a rousing game of kick ball.

As you pan, you are going to keep 1/3 to 1/2 of the gold pan in water at all times. It should sit at an angle with ~ 30 degree tilt. Now start washing the lighter material off into the creek by using a rough circular to elliptical motion.  Don’t worry about panning too hard or fast, it is not easy to lose gold. If you are looking for diamonds and other gemstones, take it a little easier because these have specific gravities closer to garnet. Thus, if you are saving garent, you are saving diamonds and ruby.  Soon, you should start seeing a lot of dark to black minerals along the edge of the lighter-colored minerals. Most of the light minerals should wash over the lip of the pan. These are the famous ‘black sands’ that we’ve all read about in gold prospecting books.

Now that you have mostly black sands in your pan, try something interesting. Lift your pan out of the water keeping the bottom of the pan covered with water, and start slapping the edge of the pan with your right (or left) hand while holding the pan in the other. You should see more separation of the black sands from lighter materials and if you have any gold, it should start separating from the black sands. If you have ever heard of a Wilfley Table, this is basically how one works. Such tables are used primarily for gold extraction although when I was at the university, we used our table for extracting pyrope garnet, chromian diopside and diamonds. We even modified the top of one table and covered it with grease to catch diamonds. Yes, diamonds stick to grease and our secret formula was 10 parts Vaseline to 1 part pariffin.

On this field trip, I taught a group to pan for gold (all they found were diamond indicator minerals), but they had fun. After it finally sunk in, 'diamond indicator minerals', many went back to the Middle Fork of the Little Laramie River to try to find the source of those diamond indicator minerals. Note the panner has her pan about 1/3rd in water and at a 30 degree angle. But, she was not sitting on the bank.

At first, it takes a person a fairly long time to concentrate material in a gold pan, but after a little while, you will get bored and start panning faster and faster - it won't take long and soon you will be panning material in a minute or two. At this point you either become an expert panner or you look for a different hobby.

Don’t mistaken mica for gold – this is much more common mistake than pyrite for gold. Mica occurs as tiny flakes. We all want to see gold, so most people will convince themselves they have gold. But mica will not roll over and over in the water – gold will sit tight.

With your hand lens, look for tiny, equal dimensional red mineral grains. These are probably garnets. If they are clear enough and large enough, they might be gem quality. If they are larger than 2 or 3 millimeters, they can actually be faceted.

Now let's look for ruby and sapphire. These will form hexagonal prisms (6-sided prisms). If you have any, you better start panning upstream until you run out of these crystals and start looking either for mica-rich schist, serpentinite or marble (common host rocks for ruby and sapphire) – and then send me the larger crystals. Now look for diamonds. These will be roughly equal dimensional. They may occur as cubes, octahedrons or similar crystals and look distinctly greasy: they should not be attached to a gold ring.

If you are having a difficult time identifying minerals - get a good book on mineralogy written for the layman.