The California gold rush that ignited in 1848 saw fortune-seekers poring over hundreds of miles of northern California for tiny bits of bling. One modern-day panner finds his fortune on the 0.2-mile stretch of 47th Street in midtown Manhattan.
As an urban panner, Raffi Stepanian hangs around the glitziest part of the city: the Diamond District. But he’s not dabbling in the trade in the shops and boutiques – he’s digging around in the sidewalk cracks for fractures and splinters of the precious metals and gems.
So it’s not a historic fortune, but Stepanian has made up to $300 a day with his urban panning technique. His materials are simple: a butter knife, a dustpan and a coffee can. Scouring the streets on his hands and knees, he collects gold dust and flakes buried in dirt and pavement. Tiny gold links, rubies and even diamonds are embedded in the mud packed into the sidewalk cracks. Most bits, he says, have been inadvertently dropped by sellers or buyers and are too small to see by the average pedestrian – which helps Stepanian bring in profits. A diamond mere millimeters in diameter can fetch up to $30 when he sells it back, due largely to the fact that the stone is already cut and polished.
As for the gold, this modern-day prospector pans it like it’s 1848. With a filter, he strains out the dirt and crud that takes up much of his take-away. Then he pans it, just like the old days, shaking the tub of dirt so that the gold sinks to the bottom. What’s left looks like tiny specks, but when added together can be sold for big bucks. Stepanian has become a viral celebrity for his innovative but primitive work. Don’t believe it? He was featured on the skepticism-based show Penn and Teller Tell a Lie, and his story checked out as verifiable fact.
While it might not be the most stable income, Stepanian claims he makes enough to live off of. And he gets to bring truth to the old saying that the streets of New York City are paved with gold. You might laugh this off as an unrealistic proverb. But Stepanian is laughing too – all the way to the bank.