“Actually, we call it the Aston Martin pan,” said James Linnett, a British newcomer to gold panning who has already racked up a number of medals in competitions, as well as nuggets of varying sizes, which he proudly showed to other competitors. He plans to melt some of the gold for a band for his fiancée for their wedding next year, a practice that is popular among goldpanners.
Mr. Linnett complained that television reality shows broadcast in the United States and the United Kingdom glamorized prospecting, “making people think they can pull out ounces from rivers,” but the reality was that goldpanning required a lot of hard, patient work. “Only one or two small pieces in a day is a good day,” he said.
If gold panning today is mostly a hobby, it was far less fun for legions of often forcibly employed miners who worked in the neighboring gold-rich Alpine valleys over the centuries.
Until the mid-20th century underground mines were still operating in the Anzasca Valley, to the north, which over centuries lured thousands of workers from around Italy.
“It wasn’t so much a gold rush as a rush for employment,” said Gloria Casella, whose husband owns the Guia Gold Mine, the only one open to visits. It was backbreaking and dangerous work as the gold was extracted first using lead and then cyanide.
“They were forced to work like animals,” said Riccardo Bossone, her husband, and many workers also died of black lung disease. It was known as “the valley of widows and orphans,” he said.
“What’s worse is that they came knowing that they would die young,” he said. “A tragedy.”
All the gold mines in the area were eventually shut because labor costs outweighed profits. “There is more gold under the Monte Rosa than in Africa, but because of costs and environmental laws it isn’t mined anymore,” said Mr. Rocchetti of one of the principal massifs of the Pennine Alps.
Today, gold prospecting in Italy is done mostly in streams and rivers in Piedmont, Lombardy and the Aosta Valley. Regional laws cap to five grams the amount that can be found in one day.
“I wish! You never find more than a few grams,” said Giuseppe Pipino, the Italian who brought competitive goldpanning to Italy (though he no longer participates).
“We’re more about teaching families about gold seeking,” said Mr. Pipino, whose own association is based in the Orba Valley, around another gold-rich stream.