Patrick Jan barely scratches out a living. He is too busy making his childhood dream come true.
AUBONNE — Patrick Jan works with monk-like patience to carefully pick out gold flecks with the tips of his fingers and place them in a small flask where they sparkle in the sunlight. Since childhood, Jan has been dreaming of gold.
And yet, years of hunting the precious metal have not made him rich. In fact, Jan admits that he barely ekes out a living. After a hard day's work here in western Switzerland, he harvests around one gram of gold, which is worth about 40 Swiss francs ($41.73)
To make some extra money, Jan guides people curious to hunt gold as a summer activity in the hilly river beds of Switzerland. He's able to share the knowledge he has accumulated, especially over the past eight years of professional gold panning that involves sifting rivers and streams with his feet. "I don't earn much, but I've got a beautiful office."
Wild West nostalgia
The most important part of the technique is the wrist movement, Jan explains, slowly whirling his pan. Thanks to the rotating movements, flecks of gold appear among ferrous sands, lighting up the lone miner's eyes.
Raised with spaghetti westerns, Jan remembers first dreaming of gold when he was six years old. Only later did he realize he was born too late, long after the great California and Klondike gold rushes. So he had his hand at many other jobs: roofer, painter, and delivery man.
Just before he turned 30, a friend showed Jan a press clipping of a fortune seeker who had found a gold nugget of 123 grams in the Swiss canton of Grisons. The two men set off toward Disentis, a municipality in the canton. In the first few days, Patrick tried with a gold-mining pan that he'd made himself. Then he bought a professional tool, but they were "too much in a hurry" and came up empty. But on the second trip, near the town of Aubonnes, Jan founded 4 grams of gold. A subsequent visit to Grisons, and some "beginner's luck," netted eight more grams. Jan was permanently afflicted with Gold Fever.
Switzerland's slim reserves
Switzerland is considered to have poor gold deposits, and there are virtually no miners working in a professional capacity. Near the French border, the loamy river waters of the Aubonne municipality originate from the Jura mountains, and Patrick extracts about 20 flecks of gold that measure one square millimeter. If you want to grab more gold, he says, it's better to go a bit farther north.
These are hard times all around for gold-dreaming fortune seekers. They are accused of disrupting rivers' ecosystems. The municipality of Neuchâtel, a longtime gold-mining destination, has banned the activity since 2008. Geneva recently began requiring a permit to explore the waters of the Allandon river, even for short periods of time.
Patrick Jan often feeds his golden fever in the Grisons, the only real potential Eldorado in Switzerland. In 2001, someone found nearly one kilogram of gold, embedded in quartz, in a secret location in the Surselva Valley. Patrick Jan is now 48. He spends his winters making and selling chocolate and candies, but confesses that he still holds out hopes that one of these summers he might come upon his treasure of a lifetime.