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How to Spot Fake Gold

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Few things are as disappointing as discovering what you thought was gold is fake.

The saying “All that glitters is not gold” is derived from a 16th-century line by William Shakespeare. And although it is meant figuratively to indicate that not everything that looks valuable is valuable, it also has a literal meaning – not everything that looks like gold is gold!

Gold is arguably the most popular precious metal. And as one of the most expensive precious metals, it is no surprise that the fake gold market is huge.

Some people use inexpensive materials to create items they fraudulently pass off as gold. But most jewelry items that look like gold, such as costume jewelry and gold-plated jewelry, are not created to deceive the buyer.

The challenge is that some of these fake gold items end up in the hands of people who believe they are genuine.

Read on to learn the telltale signs of how to spot fake gold.

Woman holding gold glitter in her hands

7 Ways to Spot Fake Gold

You can use the following methods to help determine if gold is real. However, they are not foolproof. To validate any suspicions you might have, visit a reputable jeweler or pawn shop that can evaluate and test whether gold items are authentic.

#1. Magnet Test

One of the easiest ways to tell if gold jewelry is real is if it does not stick to a strong magnet, as gold is not magnetic. The magnet test is an easy way to spot fake jewelry made from metals, such as iron.

Note that since gold is very soft and malleable, gold jewelry is never made using pure gold.

In the United States, most jewelry has a purity of 14 karats and sometimes 18 karats.

14 karats = 58.3% pure gold.

18 karats = 75.0% pure gold.

The balance of 41.7% and 25.0% respectively is typically a mixture of other metals like copper, zinc, silver and nickel. These other metals add strength to the jewelry so it’s less likely to break.

Metals such as copper, zinc, palladium, and silver are not magnetic, but nickel is.

For example, white gold is an alloy usually containing 75% pure gold and 25% white metals, including nickel. White gold jewelry containing nickel might not pass the magnet test.

#2. Hallmark Test

Items made from precious metals often carry a mark certifying their standard of purity and sometimes the manufacturer.

Purity is expressed in karats or millesimal fineness.

Karats (used only for gold) – Measures the parts per 24, where 24 karat gold is considered pure gold. For example 18 karat gold = 18/24 = 75% gold.

Hallmarks include 10K, 14K, and 18K.

Millesimal fineness – Expresses the fineness of gold in units of parts per 1,000.

Hallmarks include 333, 375, 750, 875, and 999.

Other hallmarks include:

GP – Gold Plated

GF – Gold Filled

GE – Gold Electroplated

GEP – Gold Electro Plated

HGP – Heavy Gold Plated

HEG – Heavy Electroplated Gold

The above markings indicate that only a small percentage of gold is covering an item to give it the appearance of gold.

Hallmarks are not foolproof and may wear off over time.

#3. Skin Test

To apply the skin test, hold a piece of jewelry between your hands until they start to perspire. Look at your palms or rub the jewelry on your hand or arm.

Fake gold will leave a black, blue, or green mark. Real gold jewelry will never discolor your skin.

Note that wearing makeup may discolor your skin when it is in contact with gold. In addition, test results may differ for heavily plated gold items.

#4. Acid Test

By performing a liquid nitric acid test, you can determine whether or not your gold is real.

Make a tiny mark or scratch on the piece of gold you want to test to penetrate its surface. Drop a small amount of liquid nitric acid on that scratch and wait for a chemical reaction.

Real gold will not react to the nitric acid – the nitric acid will stay clear and not change color. If the gold is fake, the nitric acid will immediately turn green. If it becomes milky in appearance, it’s likely gold-plated sterling silver.

Nitric acid will not damage real gold. But rather have your gold tested by a professional than risk damaging it by scratching it.

#5. Float Test

All you need to do to perform the float test is to drop your item in a bowl of water. Real gold will immediately sink to the bottom. Imitation gold will float or hover above the bottom of the bowl.

Note that imitation gold made from metals denser than water, such as iron, will also sink to the bottom. But it is a quick and easy test, and if the item floats, you know it is not real gold.

#6. Smell Test

Have you ever noticed how bad your hand smells when it starts sweating while holding coins?

One metal that is often used to make coins (and fake gold jewelry) is brass – an alloy of copper and zinc. Whereas gold is odorless, brass, when in contact with sweat, produces an acidic smell due to an electrolytic reaction.

Place your gold jewelry in the palm of your hand until your hand starts sweating. Place your other hand over it and rub your hands together with the jewelry between them. Next, smell your hands – if they smell like coins, your gold jewelry might be fake.

If your gold jewelry passes the smell test, it does not necessarily mean it is gold. But if it fails the smell test, it is a red flag.

#7. Lighter Test

The lighter test is another quick and easy test you can do at home.

Place your gold jewelry in a position where you can apply heat to it without damaging the surrounding area or burning yourself. Keep the flame of a lighter on it for about one minute. If the color of the gold becomes darker, it is more than likely fake gold.

Real gold will get brighter, not darker. Fake gold will darken or change color.

Note that if the jewelry is gold plated, the gold plating might melt, in which case you should be able to spot the metal underneath.

That's a Wrap

The tests on how to spot fake gold should give you an indication of whether or not an item is made from gold, gold plated, or costume jewelry. But, it is only an indication – to establish the authenticity of gold, visit a reputable jeweler or pawnbroker.

If you have any jewelry or items made from gold that you would like to sell, pawn, or have evaluated, Maxferd has in-house experts ready to assist you.

Call us at (800) 888-7296 or visit one of our five locations in San Francisco and Los Angeles to find out how we can help you.