Gold has a unique place in our hearts. For centuries, its beauty has been a symbol of wealth and power. It’s used to make our most precious jewelry, to decorate places of worship, and to celebrate our highest achievements.
It’s even found its way into everyday language, with expressions like heart of gold, gold standard and good as gold.
But when something is this valuable, it’s not surprising that some will attempt to fake it. So how do you distinguish fake gold from the real thing?
We’re going to tell you everything you need to know about how to tell if gold is real. And when you’ve finished reading, you’ll have all the information you need to buy gold with confidence.
What counts as gold?
To begin with, let’s define what we’re talking about here. Most, if not all, authentic gold jewelry isn’t actually made of pure gold.
That’s because gold is a very soft metal. If it were used in its pure form, the jewelry would bend out of shape, or even break, all too easily.
To deal with that problem, gold is mixed with other metals. The type of metals and how much of them is used depends on the color and karat rating of the gold.
In its natural form, most gold is the wonderful warm yellow color we know and love. But you’ll also see rose gold and white gold used in jewelry and other objects.
Rose gold is a mixture of gold and copper. It usually also contains some silver. The result is a beautiful pink metal.
White gold is another gold alloy. Here, gold is mixed with white metals, usually palladium, silver and nickel. White gold jewelry is usually then plated in rhodium to give it a distinctive high shine.
Both rose and white gold are considered to be “real gold”. The amount of pure gold they contain varies, depending on their karat rating. More on that in a moment.
As we’ve seen, yellow gold is also mixed with other metals to make it strong enough to be used in jewelry. Whether your gold is yellow, white or rose, the amount of pure gold it contains is indicated by its karat rating.
One karat is one-twenty-fourth of the whole. So if you divided 18-karat gold up into twenty-fourths, 18 of those would be pure gold. The other six parts would consist of other metals. In other words, it’s three-quarters, or 75 percent, pure gold.
Other common karat ratings are 10, 14 and 22-karat. And older jewelry, from the Victorian or Edwardian eras, often used 15-karat gold.
Minimum gold standards vary by country. In the US, only metals that are at least 10-karat can be called “gold”. In the UK, the minimum standard is 9-karat, and in Germany it’s 8-karat. Often, gold jewelry will be marked with its karat rating.
1. Using hallmarks
One easy way to give you some reassurance about the quality of jewelry is to look for hallmarks. These are small numbers and symbols stamped on the gold. Depending on where and when the piece was made, hallmarks can tell you its date of manufacture and its gold content.
But while all modern gold should be hallmarked, many antique pieces of jewelry won’t be. And gold from India, for example, wasn’t required to carry a hallmark until the year 2000.
Supposing you can find a hallmark, there are also a number of different approaches taken to signifying the karat rating.
Easiest to spot are numbers followed by “K” or “ct”. These stand for the karat rating (outside the US, it’s more usually spelled “carat”, hence the “ct”). So a ring marked 10K would be 10-karat gold, 14K, 14-karat gold and so on.
In other cases, you’ll find just the karat rating without the “k” or “ct” after it. And in still others, you’ll find a three-digit number. This is used in many countries to signify the parts out of 1,000 that are pure gold.
To give an example, a ring marked 583 would have 583 parts in 1,000 pure gold. That’s 58.3 percent, the same as 14 karats. (Outside the US, the mark is usually 585, also equivalent to 14-karat gold.)
Of course, a determined forger will be able to add fake hallmarks to an item too. So how else can you check if gold is real?
2. Take a close look at the metal
There are other visual clues that can help you determine whether a piece of jewelry is real gold.
Gold-plated pieces are often marked with GP, GF (gold-filled) or GEP (gold electroplate). Although the plating is gold, the core of the item is base metal and wouldn’t be considered “real” gold.
Another thing to look out for is discoloration on any part of the metal. Gold is non-reactive, so won’t generally discolor over time. (With lower quality gold, the other metals used in the alloys can lead to a small degree of discoloration.)
A good place to look for color changes is at points of wear. These are usually around the edges of rings, pendants or coins, or on the clasps of chains. If the item has been gold plated, this is where the gold will rub away quickest, exposing the different colored metal underneath.
3. Check whether it leaves behind marks
Gold is hypoallergenic, so gold jewelry should never stain or irritate your skin. If your jewelry has left behind a mark on your skin, it isn’t gold. A black mark usually means it’s silver. A green mark usually signifies copper.
But strangely enough, gold will leave behind a mark on unglazed ceramic. That means that another way to check whether your gold is real is to scrape it lightly across an unglazed ceramic tile. Make sure that there’s no glaze present on the tile, though, as this will affect the result.
The ceramic will lightly scratch your gold, so this approach does cause some damage. Do it with care, though, and it will be so slight as to be barely noticeable.
What you’re looking for here is the mark left behind by the item you’re testing. If it’s real gold, the mark will consist of tiny particles of gold. That means it will be the same yellow color as gold. If it’s black, the item is made of base metal, or a mineral-like iron pyrites (known as “fool’s gold”).
You can also perform a test using cosmetics. Apply some foundation to your skin and leave it to dry. Then rub the item over the skin covered in the foundation. The foundation contains hard minerals which will scrape away tiny particles of metal. Fake gold will usually leave behind a black mark.
4. Buy a chemical testing kit
There are lots of gold testing kits on the market, and they’re not particularly expensive. But be warned, they will cause a degree of damage to the item being tested.
Most test kits use nitric acid. This is the same approach that will be taken if you take your item to a jeweler to be tested.
The kits will contain different solutions of nitric acid to test different purities of gold. Some also include gold needles. These allow you to compare the results of the test on the needle with the results on your object.
To begin with, you’ll need to use a sharp tool to scratch away the top surface of the metal. Try to keep the area as small as possible to minimize visible damage. Next, place the item to be tested in a stainless steel container and put on a pair of latex gloves.
Take the nitric acid and apply a small drop onto the area where you’ve scraped away the top surface. If there’s no reaction, your item is real gold. If it turns green, it’s fake. If the acid turns gold, your item is made of gold-plated brass. If it turns milky, it’s usually gold-plated silver.
If your item is gold, you can then go on to use the “touchstone” method to test its purity. This involves using testing needles of different gold purities, and different acid solutions. Comparing the reactions of the testing needles with the reactions of your item will allow you to identify the gold purity.
5. Check the density of your item
Real gold has a particular density. The density of a gold item will vary according to the purity of the gold.
14-karat yellow gold has a density of between 12.9 and 13.6 grams per milliliter. For 18-karat yellow gold, the density is between 15.2 and 15.9 grams per milliliter.
The density of white gold varies more widely, because of the range of different metals the gold is mixed with. A piece of 18-karat white gold can have a density of anything between 14.7 and 16.9 grams per milliliter. All 22-karat gold has a density of between 17.7 and 17.8 grams per milliliter.
Checking the density of your item can therefore enable you to see whether it matches the density of gold. And as long as you have a measuring cylinder and an accurate enough weighing scale, it’s easy to do.
Your cylinder needs to have markings in either milliliters or cubic centimeters. The more gradations there are on the scale, the more accurate your result will be. Your weighing scale needs to be able to show you the weight in grams.
First weigh your item and record the measurement in grams. Now half-fill your graduated cylinder with water. You want to leave enough space for the water to rise without overspilling when you place the item inside.
Place your half-full cylinder on a flat surface and take a note of the starting measurement of the water. Now lower the item you want to test into the water. Do it as gradually as possible to avoid splashing. If any water is lost from the cylinder, it will distort the result.
Now take a note of the new water level.
Next, subtract the first water measurement from the second and make a note of the result. This is the amount of water that has been displaced by the item. (Don’t worry if your scale is in milliliters or cubic centimeters, as these are essentially the same measurement.)
Now go back to the weight of the gold in grams. Divide that number by the result of your calculation. That will give you the density of your item in grams per milliliter.
You can now compare this figure to the known densities of different purities of gold. If your figure is very different from any of those numbers, the gold is fake.
But note that, unfortunately, the opposite isn’t necessarily true. Depending on the combination of metals used to make the fake gold, the density can be quite similar to the real thing. So this is a test that’s best used alongside others to give you more evidence about your item.
6. Other simple tests
Gold has some particular properties that can also help you test whether your item is authentic.
Gold isn’t magnetic, so the magnet test is a simple way to help separate out fakes from the real thing. For this, though, you’ll need more than your average fridge magnet! Get yourself to a home improvement store and buy a neodymium magnet.
If your item doesn’t stick to the magnet, that’s consistent with real gold. But note that some fake gold also uses non-magnetic materials like stainless steel. And very strong magnets can pick up the alloys used to strengthen real gold. So this is another test best used in conjunction with others.
Real gold is also dense enough to sink to the bottom of a container of water. If your item floats, it’s fake. Fake gold also sometimes contains iron, so it may show signs of rust after it gets wet.
Ready to separate out the real stuff from the fake?
We hope you’ve enjoyed our explanation of how to tell if gold is real! As you can see, there are lots of different approaches out there. Not all of them will give you a definitive answer. But by using different tests together, you can get a good idea of whether your gold is real.
Remember, if you want absolute certainty, you can always get your item tested by a jeweler. There will be a charge, but that may be worth it for your peace of mind.