When your wedding ring goes missing, you need to call a metal detectorist
Excerpts from an Article written in the Calgary Herald -Swerve Magazine April4 , 2014, by Jacquie Moore
On April 4, 2013, a young woman in southwest Calgary got engaged, took a bath, made lasagna, tossed a salad, ate dinner and went to bed. First thing the next morning she called Bill Jones, a metal detector recovery specialist, and asked if he could come straight over. In the 12 hours since her boyfriend had proposed, the woman had lost the engagement ring. Jones hesitated. “I told her, ‘I can’t find your ring in a condo—everything in there is metal.’” The woman persisted. An hour later, for a fee of $25, Jones arrived with an arsenal of questions (finding something, he says, is as cerebral as it is physical). He asked her what she’d done right after she got the ring. Taken a bath, she answered, though she was certain she was still wearing the ring when she got out. What did you do after that? Dinner. Were there leftovers? There were. Jones scanned the lasagna Pyrex with a pinpointer probe; nothing. Then he passed the wand over the Tupperware in the fridge. Bingo—a $35,000, three-carat-diamond engagement ring sat between two leaves of lettuce.
As Jones implies, condos are not typical hunting grounds for metal detectorists. More often, you’ll find him and his cohorts in parks, on boulevards, along the banks of the Bow and, occasionally, up to their knees in manure (we’ll come back to that).
While some all-weather obsessives hunt year-round in Calgary, most start appearing alongside the crocuses, panning the warming earth, seemingly oblivious to the joggers, dog-walkers, monkey-bar-climbers and picknickers who populate the grassy places they search. I say “seemingly oblivious” because, in spite of appearances, it’s precisely you—with your holey pockets and your butterfingers and your careless habits—they’re interested in. Metal detectorists may be searching for inanimate objects, but they’re rarely motivated by fantasies of striking it rich by discovering Alberta’s equivalent of the Staffordshire Hoard (a motherlode of seventh-century gold relics found in 2009 by a lucky Brit with a run-of-the-mill detector); more often, they’re seeking human connection—whether contemporary or ancestral—and the chance to restore a little happiness.
As befits an activity that frequently produces outlandish anecdotes, the beginnings of metal detecting are stranger than fiction. As the story goes, the inventor Alexander Graham Bell was charged with the urgent task of coming up with a device that could find a bullet lodged in the body of American President James Garfield, who had been shot at a Washington, D.C. railroad station. Bell threw together a couple of insulated wire coils, a circuit breaker, a battery and parts of the telephone he’d invented five years earlier. The device apparently worked, emitting a helpful hum when panned over Garfield’s body. Problem was, the thing hummed no matter what part of the body it scanned. Garfield died 11 weeks after he was shot. It was only later that someone helpfully pointed out that Bell’s “bullet probe” had likely been reacting to the metal springs in the mattress beneath the president.
Metal-detecting technology has advanced in great leaps since then, and now serves dozens of industrial, military and security purposes. But it was the dawn of the affordable, portable variety in the 1970s that got average curious folks hooked. Bill Jones got in deep in 1978 when he responded to a Calgary Rock and Lapidary ad for metal detectors. “I saw that (ad) and thought, ‘Wow, I wonder what’s under the ground.’” He immediately fell in love with the hobby but recalls the limitations of his first detector. “They were very rudimentary back then—there was no discrimination, you’d hear one beep and you’d dig,” he says. “I dug lots of tinfoil and pulltabs back then.”
Jones has since gone through three detectors, each more expensive and sophisticated than the last. His current device, a $700 Garret AT Pro, detects items 10 inches underground, even underwater, and has three distinct tones so that the user can learn to ignore “grunts” that likely (but not necessarily) indicate a piece of contemporary trash. A digital readout tells the detectorist with a fair degree of accuracy whether a buried item is made of silver, white gold, gold or platinum. The model is so lightweight and easy to use that when Jones lent it to my five-year-old son at Tom Campbell’s Hill Park one afternoon last week, within five minutes he was able to locate two loonies buried deep beneath the snow.
Jones is likewise driven to reunite people with their treasures, but his approach, while less romantic than Kemp’s, has a higher rate of success (about 60 percent). Unlike Kemp, he begins with the owner, then looks for their lost possession. In addition to his local club affiliation, Jones is a member of an international network of metal recovery specialists called The Ring Finders. These are the people you’d look up if, say, while in a fit of anger at your Parisian fiancé, you threw your engagement ring from the top of the Eiffel Tower. A Ring Finder will come tout de suite, no judgements, and do their best to find it for you. Jones tells me those are often the easiest sorts of losses to recover because the thrower can tell him the ring’s whereabouts with relative specificity once she—or, sometimes, he—is ready to put it back on. Over the years, he’s recovered 10 such matrimonial-rage rings.
While Jones long ago made a business out of his hobby, he’s not getting rich. Semi-retired from jobs in IT and real estate, he says “If I was relying on this to pay my mortgage, I’d have gone broke a long time ago.” This isn’t the first time Jones has turned a profit from a hobby in order to cover expenses. Years ago, he was a magician-for-hire—until the day he pulled a rabbit out of a box and contracted tularemia, a rare bacterial infection that, two weeks later, resulted in his requiring a liver transplant. So far, his metal recovery work has proven less dangerous and it keeps him fit. On top of that, it’s provided him with an enviable stash of solid-gold anecdotes.
Last February, for instance, Jones got a call from a couple on a farm near Indus, Alta. Weeks earlier, the woman had tossed some hay into the corral, inadvertently tossing her 18-karat gold diamond wedding ring along with it. Believing the ring was still in the corral, the couple neglected to tell Jones that in the interim they’d shovelled up some manure from the enclosure and moved it over to the garden. Jones came up empty. In June, however, the couple brought him back for another attempt, an idea presumably inspired by their spreading the corral manure over the garden. Jones searched the garden for two hours, but the conditions were far from ideal. “You’ll recall there was a lot of rain last June,” he says. “I took one step into the plot and was up to my knees in mud.” Jones told the couple to call him back when they harvested the garden. They did and, in August, Jones made a third trip out. To his dismay, the ground had inadvertently been tilled—twice—by a well-intentioned relative. Though pessimistic, Jones geared up anyway and, a couple of hours later, the woman had her ring back. “They invited me in for a beer to celebrate.”
On another occasion, Jones took a call from an Okotoks woman whose toddler had chucked her mom’s ring off the deck and into the grass and bushes below. The woman was so thrilled when Jones recovered it that she cried. “I get that a lot,” he says. He also gets a lot of hugs, sometimes from men. “That gets a little uncomfortable, especially when they go on for a long time.”
If you ask to see Jones’s personal metal collection, he’ll present a small box of interesting odds and sods, including a rusty jacknife retrieved from a playground. He’s far more proud of a stack of snapshots of his smiling customers. “That’s what’s valuable to me.”
Kevin Niefer is one of the city’s two other Ring Finders. Niefer is a local realtor and a coin buff whose collection numbers in the tens of thousands. His interest in metal detecting was sparked during a childhood jaunt to a lake near his grandparents’ house in Saskatchewan. There he observed an old man hunting along the shore for “fish-scale” nickels, a pre-1921, dime-thin silver version of the coin we know today. The man essentially told the curious young Niefer to get lost, but the seed was planted. “My first finds were a penny and a bottlecap. I remember thinking, ‘Well, this sucks,’ but I didn’t give up.”
Like Jones, Niefer, who is currently helping to put together a pilot for a Calgary-based metal-detecting reality show titled What’s In Your Backyard?, is most animated when he shares his stories of returning precious goods. His Ring Finder calls have taken him to wilderness campgrounds, river bottoms, frigid parking lots and, most memorably, into the hills near Sundre, where a newlywed lost his ring while slinging mud at his bride on their wedding day. “They were an outdoorsy couple,” Niefer explains. He found the ring in the mud pit after a few false beeps over rebar and various quad parts.
To read the complete Story as published int he Calgary Herald Swerve Magazine, written by Jaquie Moore . . . Follow this Link