A website connects people who have misplaced their rings with metal detectorists who know where to look.
A man takes off his baseball glove in Central Park. His wedding ring slips off undetected and disappears into the grass. Hours pass before he notices that it’s missing.
A woman reacts in a fit of anger, tossing her engagement ring into the ocean. As it hits the water, pangs of regret settle in.
A tourist visiting Canada removes five sentimental rings to sanitize her hands while in a rental car. Later, when she steps out, they are sent sprawling into the snow, and she doesn’t realize they’re gone until she’s on the flight back home.
Usually, stories of this variety almost always end in tears. Yet these three people found their lost rings, frantically Googling some iteration of I lost my wedding ring and stumbling upon a network of metal detectorists who help people locate their misplaced jewelry. They had found their way to the Ring Finders, a service that pairs these people with one of 430 sleuths stationed around the world.
According to the British insurance company Protect Your Bubble, 11 percent of people have lost their wedding rings in the past five years. Since wedding rings can cost upwards of $6,000, losing them can be especially painful for couples, and yet it also gives detectives adept in the art of finding lost rings a chance to intervene and be the hero.
Heartbroken couples who come across the Ring Finders are presented with a search bar to enter their location, which leads to a list of nearby metal detectorists who cover that area. While the site’s appeal for those who have lost their wedding rings is clear, there’s much for the hunters themselves to gain. The Ring Finders service mainly operates on a pay-what-you-can system, though most finders ask that they are at least compensated for their gas costs. And while some refuse any payment, others are keen on seeking out cash rewards to make up for their time and effort: One finder told me of a recent bounty of $200, while another boasted of a $1,500 prize. Rewards the finders get are theirs to keep—the site doesn’t take any cut.
Instead, it turns a profit by charging metal detectorists a $65 annual membership fee—and, for more money, they can “lock” cities or regions as their own. Before officially joining, every finder also has to undergo a phone interview with Chris Turner, the Ring Finders’ founder.
Turner, himself a metal-detector enthusiast who has recovered some 600 lost rings over the years, started the website in 2009 from his home in Vancouver, Canada. “I had a smaller version of the business called Finders,” he says. “Somebody saw it and said, ‘I love what you’re doing. Have you thought about helping people on a larger scale?’” The angel investor provided the seed money for the Ring Finders, and a decade later, Turner says that the site has been used to find and return 4,900 rings exceeding $7.5 million in value.
Though the Ring Finders might smack of a scam to hoodwink people into forking over large amounts of cash to recoup their lost talisman of marriage, users of the site I talked to generally had a positive experience. Jazmin Rodriguez, a 35-year-old nurse who lives in Auburndale, Florida, slipped while stepping off a pontoon boat. Her rings caught on a door hinge, sending two of them into the water.
Using the Ring Finders, Rodriguez was connected with a nearby metal-detecting club. Three days later, drinks and warm donuts in hand, she met three men on the dock. “They asked how deep the water was, if I knew where I lost them, and a description,” Rodriquez told me. “One guy took the reins and invited two others to help.”
The men searched for 20 minutes, placing the waterproof part of the detectors into the water and passing them over the area where she thought she had lost her ring. When they heard a beep, they plunged a shovel-like tool into the muck and pulled it up to examine. “The third one to cover that area found the first ring after locating several bottle caps,” Rodriquez told me. “He yelled out, ‘One!,’ held it up in the air, and walked it all the way to me at the boat. Five minutes later, the second ring was found, a few feet away.”
Christopher Martin, a 43-year-old trumpet player in the New York Philharmonic, lost his wedding ring while playing baseball in Central Park. With help from the Ring Finders, he was paired with Jeronimo Barerra, who showed up to the park with two metal detectors—one for each of them. After about an hour of sleuthing and no sign of the ring, Martin was prepared to give up. But Barerra’s persistence paid off: When a family who had been having a picnic cleaned up and left, he swept his detector over the area and heard a beep—it was Martin’s ring.
Martin and Rodriguez aren’t the lucky few exceptions who were able to recover their lost jewelry. The metal detectorists have a surprisingly good track record of finding missing rings. Barrera, a 45-year-old vice president of the video-game company behind the viral hit Grand Theft Auto, has recovered 20 of 30 rings he’s been tasked with locating. All the ring finders agreed that if the person knows roughly where the item was last seen, it will most likely be discovered. As Barrera put it, the success rate is “close to 90 percent on the ones where the calls are to a specific spot in Central Park, or to the beach, or a yard,” versus hazier locations such as somewhere in midtown Manhattan.
The metal detectorists run the gamut in age and background, but, like Barrera, they are mostly male. “The members are 90 percent men, 10 percent women, yet that is changing,” Turner says.
One reason the metal detectorists have such a surprisingly good track record is that, through practice, they’ve honed a strategy on how to find rings. “If I can’t find them, I’m not sure that they are where they think they are,” says Mike Fish, a ring hunter who lives in Anchorage, Alaska. The 71-year-old retired firefighter does request a small fee—chocolate-chip cookies.
“It’s a lot of work,” adds Steve Smith, a 63-year-old retired welder based in Rancho Palos Verdes, California. “People don’t understand. You find a lot of trash before you find treasure.” He says he’s found about 50 percent of the roughly 500 rings he’s searched for. Sometimes, he’ll spend hours searching for a ring only for the client to realize that it was in a pocket or at home all along.
The process of finding a ring starts, first of all, with figuring out exactly where it was lost. As all the metal detectorists told me, most of their ring-less clients are mistaken on the location—sometimes by a little, often by a a lot. “They are never where people think they are. They are off by 30, 60, 100 yards,” Turner says.
Smith laid out how the process works after that. “Once I decipher basically where the ring is from the questions I ask,” he says, “we arrange to meet in their yard or the beach or the park. They lead me to the area and we go over again how they lost their ring, which way they were facing, what happened at the moment. Kind of like a detective, I figure out where to start my search, being sure to cover the entire area, because if you missed it by an inch, you missed it by a mile.”
From there, Smith—as well as all the other sleuths I talked with—start the “gridding” method: They wave the metal detector back and forth while walking in a short, straight line, and then turn around, retracing their steps just a few inches over from where they had just walked, a process that ensures that they’re not missing any spots.
But gridding only goes so far—endurance and sheer determination are also important. “There’s a lot of detective work involved—persistence is the big word,” says Stan Ross, a 74-year-old retired construction technician who lives in Southern California and estimates he’s recovered about 300 of the 1,000 rings he’s been asked to find.
Ever since men and women started wearing wedding rings, they have had to contend with the heartbreak and stress of losing them. Apart from the prospect of pay, that’s what makes ring finding such a draw for those who seek it out—the euphoria that comes from making a brokenhearted stranger overcome with emotion.
“There’s a high to finding something, especially when it’s a long shot,” says Ross. It “feels like love.”
This article originally appeared on The Atlantic.