Sandstorm Gold now closes more gold-streaming deals than any other company in the world. "We started with a $4 million market cap, and in October we hit $1 billion," Watson says. "That's just the start. I think we can grow Sandstorm Gold to a $15-to-$20 billion market-cap range, and Sandstorm Metals & Energy to maybe $50 billion." Such bravado—with the bucks to back it—caught the eye of Mad Money's Jim Cramer, who had Watson on the CNBC show this past October, throwing his weight behind the company with one big booyah. "I've seen one analyst who thinks Sandstorm can grow production by an astounding 228 percent from last year through 2015," Cramer had previously told his audience. "You can see why this stock is so compelling. I am always looking for a lower-risk way to play gold with a lot of upside."

As Watson's mushrooming net worth attests, gold "really is the gift that keeps on giving," he says. "People are always going to want gold. And as long as the government keeps printing money, prices will keep going up." As for whether he himself has prospected, Watson shakes his head and laughs. "You know, I really don't think I'd be much good at it."

"A chunk, where the pick had laid open the heart of the gold, glittered like a handful of yellow jewels, and he cocked his head at it and slowly turned it around and over to observe the rich play of the light upon it."—Jack London, "All Gold Canyon"

• • •

For Dave McCracken, reaping financial rewards from gold is less compelling than the hunt—the all-consuming quest to find treasure. "Once you're hooked, you can't resist it," says McCracken, a 59-year-old former Navy SEAL. Call him the Indiana Jones of gold prospectors—McCracken has been hired by the Cambodian government, Venezuelan mining companies, American investors, wealthy individuals, and a host of unsavory characters he declines to name to search out the world's most lucrative gold deposits. His work has taken him to Sumatra, the Philippines, Madagascar, and Borneo. McCracken specializes in underwater mining, deploying suction dredges on riverbeds and stream bottoms, sucking up and separating materials. He has watched gold enthusiasts pour into the trade as the price continues to rise—the Gold Prospectors Association of America says its paid membership has risen 83 percent since 2008, to about 45,000 in 2012, and local chapters have grown by more than 50 percent in the past year. There would be more, and more success, if not for environmental codes, says McCracken, who has a bone to pick with California's increasingly strict regulations limiting the ability of individual prospectors to hunt for gold. "They're infringing on my rights of free enterprise," he says. Not that that's going to stop him anytime soon. "What can I say? I'm good at finding gold."

Robert Sulatycky, a onetime executive chef for the Four Seasons in Chicago and the Beverly Hills Hotel, runs Vin Privée, a wine-stocking company for the private cellars of wealthy individuals around the country, and bottles his own label, Robert Allen, in Oakville, California. At 49, Sulatycky has made enough money to retire many times over. So for him the pursuit of gold is not about money. When he was a teen growing up in western Canada, his parents signed him up for a class on how to pan. Sulatycky spent hours with buddies sifting through layers of riverbed silt to find hidden riches. "I was just blown away," he recalls. The flakes that he found he tucked away in his pocket—and then he quickly moved on to the next spot.