How to Tell If Gold Is Real: Best 12 Tests to Spot Counterfeits
girls hand with golden bracelets - how to tell if gold is real

How to tell if gold is real? Have you ever found someone trying to sell gold jewelry or bars, and felt like the price was too good to be true? How do you know that you didn't just take a piece of silver and paint it gold?

Gold has always held a special place in various cultures. From ancient times, it has been used as currency and in religious ceremonies. Because of limited mining, extensive worldwide use as a form of money, and skyrocketing price gold is highly valuable. 

gold bullion coins and bars

Image by Zlataky Cz via Unsplash

Just like other precious gemstones and metals, gold is counterfeited in high volumes. Don't worry! With a few simple tests (some of them cost zero dollars), you can steer clear of fake gold jewelry.

How Did Gold Come? From the Past to Present

One precious metal that humankind has used from the dawn of civilization is gold. Despite being relatively rare, it has been a universal currency in many cultures and societies. 

Because of its shiny yellow texture and incredible malleability, it has been a favorite for crafting jewelry and art pieces throughout history.  

Gold has been an integral part of Ancient Egyptian culture dating back to 3000 BC. The Aztecs used to consider it as the "god excrement." 

It was a rare material that was first mined from rivers, and then excavated from mines. It's been discovered all over the world - from remote locations like ancient Australia to enormous areas such as South Africa.

Gold is edible (!) and has been used as a garnishing element for food and beverages from ancient times. The Egyptians started it around 5,000 years ago and then it spread across the world - from Eastern civilization to Europe. 

bite of a chocolate eclair pastry with edible gold leaf- how to tell if gold is real

Image by Eqroy via Shutterstock

Gold is a popular choice for people when they look for sustainable investment. This is because of its scarcity, which is low enough to make it desirable in today's society but not too low that it becomes useless. 

According to the World Gold Council, approximately 197,576 tonnes of gold have been excavated (until 2019) since the beginning and the underground reserve is nearly 54,000 tonnes. 

Gold bars are traded at set weights like ounces or grams, but the coins that you can purchase on eBay are fun to collect.

How To Tell If Gold Is Real: What Are Fake Gold Items Made of?

To understand the properties of counterfeits, you should know the composition of genuine items. The unit for measuring authenticity is Karat and you will find various denominations from 24 to 8 karat. 

A 24k gold article is pure as it has 99.9% gold element in its composition. On the contrary, a 14k item contains only 58.3% gold and the rest is a metal alloy featuring two or multiple metal items (which could be silver, copper, nickel, and zinc).

Your gold items like jewelry or coins will have a metal alloy because of the soft nature of 24k gold. It's too flexible to hold a firm shape. 

Remember that a jewelry piece or coin can be genuine without looking like gold. For example, white gold is 75% pure gold and 25% alloy of nickel and zinc. It imitates platinum but is similar to 18k gold. 

On the other hand, counterfeit gold articles are not gold at all. They are made of completely different materials and only have a thin gold coating on the exterior. Some common and popular imitation variations are:

a) Gold-plated Jewelry

Plating means adding a thin layer of gold over the existing metal, which is mostly silver or copper. Due to the use of chemical or electrochemical bonding, the coating lasts for years and does not chip away like paint or lacquer which can chip away. 

plated gold bracelets

Plated jewelry isn't as expensive as a solid gold item, but it still holds some value and creates a nice look for any kind of ornament.

b) Gold-filled Jewelry

Gold-filled jewelry is a way for consumers to get the benefits of gold without paying the premium price. It's a way of bonding a layer of solid gold on a base metal, such as sterling silver or brass core. 

It's different from plating because it uses more than an atom-thick layer of 18-karat gold and has a much higher quality to it. 

This type is popular because it can be worn for years and never lose its luster, while plated jewelry will only stay shiny for a few years before it needs to be re-plated.

c) Bronze and Brass (Copper Alloys)

Popular copper alloys (bronze and brass), are the most common type of counterfeits out there. Between them, brass (copper-zinc alloy) has a wider use case for imitation gold because of retaining its gold-like color for longer than bronze (copper-tin alloy). 

A copper-nickel alloy (cupronickel) also mirrors a golden color but it's not used for making jewelry because of nickel allergies

d) 9 Karat or Lower Gold Items

In the United States, anything lower than 10k (which means lower than 41.7% of gold) cannot be labeled as gold. That limit is 8k in Germany. 

e) Fool's Gold

the mineral pyrite  also known as fools gold

Image by Suto Norbert Zsolt via Shutterstock

Fool's gold is a nickname for an iron sulfide called pyrite. People often mistake it as the real deal because of its metallic sheen and brass-yellow color. However, this mineral is brittle and yields powdery residue when scratched. 

Decoding the Precious: How to Tell If Gold Is Real

Can you tell if gold is authentic or fake just by looking at it? No. But there are some things to look for that might offer a clue, and we're going to get into the details. 

There are some telltale signs that your gold might not be real if you're looking closely enough:

1) The Eye Test: Check the Color 

Not a super reliable test because only untainted gold does not change its color over time. Anything made of 24 karats (99.9%) gold shows a nearly orange-yellow color and it does not change much under normal circumstances. 

Jewelry made of 18k (a rich buttery color) or 14k gold (a straw yellow color) will change color over time because of the copper or silver alloy in them. However, wearing fake gold jewelry items will turn them dark pretty fast as they contain brass or steel.  

The one general rule for gold is its appearance: gold has a metallic luster and its surface should not show any signs of corrosion. Although external elements can tarnish gold over years of use. It does come in different colors, but it should always have a uniform finish.

2) The Stamp Test: Look for the Hallmark and Letter Mark

Look for the marking on the clasp or inner band of a jewelry piece as it indicates the gold percentage in that item. Hallmark is an international standard for denoting the purity of valuable metals. However, it's not foolproof since anybody can engrave those markings. On the other hand, letter markings refer to mostly gold-plated jewelry, which is not real.

Hallmark Stamps

The markings for the Karat system are:

  • 24k (999)
  • 23k (958.3)
  • 22k (916)
  • 20k (834)
  • 18k (750)
  • 15k (625)
  • 14k (583.3)
  • 10k (417)
  • 9k (375)
  • 8k (333)

The markings mean that 24k gold has 99.9% of gold while the 8k contains only 33.3% gold. In the United States, anything less than 10k is not considered gold while 8k is the lowest limit in German markers. 

gold ring with carat inscription

Image by  Arvind  via Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes the stamp will be in a different location but it's always worth looking to see if there are any markings at all.

Letter Markings

If you see any of the following letter markings on a piece of jewelry, avoid it because it's not genuine. 

  • GP (Gold-plated)
  • GE (Gold Electroplated)
  • GF (Gold Filled)
  • GEP (Gold Electroplated)
  • HGP (Heavy Gold-plated)
  • HEG (Heavy Gold Electroplated)

These letter markings make it clear that these pieces only have a gold-like appearance because of the plating. The base will be some kind of other materials, such as silver, copper, or nickel.

3) The Skin Test: Rub the Gold

This is a simple test to see if your gold items have been adulterated. Gold will not react with the skin and can withstand soaps, detergents, and many other substances that would make any other metal change color or even corrode into oblivion. 

Rub the gold gently with some skin to see if any reaction occurs! If there is no change at all, either on your skin or the gold piece, chances are high that your jewelry will stay beautiful for years to come. Fake ones will transform your skin's contact point into green, black, or blue. 

Don't forget to wash your hands thoroughly because the chemical elements in makeup or liquid foundation can temper the results.

However, this test is foolproof only for pure 24k or 23k gold pieces. For example, if you have a 15k gold piece (which contains only 62.5% of gold), it can still react with the skin because of other metal elements. 

Plated gold's exterior coating will wear away over time since gold is soft and that layer is pretty thin. If you have been using any gold items for a while, inspect the edges and the parts that touch your skin or clothes. Seeing another color underneath means it's fake or plated.

It's also possible to check if your gold has been plated with silver by vigorously rubbing your fingers over it and seeing if you can feel a rough texture. If so, then there's no gold underneath; just paint.

4) How To Tell If Gold Is Real: The Size and Weight Test

The weight and size are two more tests that will help solve the mystery of how to tell if gold is real. Gold is heavy and dense. It weighs more than other metals and this means it's a great way to tell if your jewelry has been tampered with

ellery bangles floral beautiful

The weight of gold will always be the same at about 19.3 grams per cubic centimeter (cc). Other familiar metals are much lighter - lead is 11.34 g/cc, copper is 8.96 g/cc, and aluminum is 2.7 g/cc.

If the jewelry weighs less than what should be for its size, then there's a good chance that something has been added to make it seem bigger (like brass or steel).

5) The Magnet Test: Does It Pull or Not?

Gold will not react with a magnet because it's non-magnetic. If you suspect that your gold might be diluted, then try this out to see if the metal has any ferrous properties

Use a robust neodymium magnet because a kitchen magnet is too weak to attract the metal blends inside a gold item. Bring the magnet close to the piece. If it moves forward, you are dealing with a fake item. 

This is a simple test but in no way guarantees the authenticity of gold. Real gold items can be bonded with ferromagnetic metals, such as iron and nickel. On the contrary, counterfeits can contain non-magnetic metals like copper and stainless steel. 

6) The Ceramic Scratch Test

To see if your gold is real, try scratching it with an unglazed ceramic. Push the item gently on the ceramic surface and drag it around a bit. 

If it leaves behind a yellow streak, you are looking at a genuine gold item. A brownish-black streak could mean it's a knockoff or fool's gold (pyrite)

A ceramic test does not damage the gold except for leaving a light scratch on the surface. 

7) How To Tell If Gold Is Real: The Floating Test

Take a vial or jug and fill up at least half of it with water. The temperature of the water does not have any effect on this test, so you can use room temperature or lukewarm water. 

Drop your gold item gently into the water and see what it does. A genuine piece of gold is dense and heavy, so it will quickly sink to the bottom of the container. Counterfeits are likely to float or sink slowly.

8) The Water Test: Measure the Density 

The density test involves how much a gold bar or coin weighs compared to how much water it displaces. If the item is genuine, it will be heavier than water, and the increase in weight is proportionate to the purity. If there are any other additives in your gold like copper, then it will be much lighter than it should be.

You will need a kitchen scale, a container with measurement markings, and water for this test. Follow these steps:

  1. Take the weight of your gold item in grams on the scale. Note it down. 
  2. Take a cylinder or vial that has cubic centimeter or millimeter markings on it. Fill around half of it with water. Record the starting water level.
  3. With a soft hand, drop the gold piece into the container and note down the new water level. 
  4. Subtract the first reading from the second one and divide the item's weight by this number. 

The result should be close to 19.3 g/mL, which is gold's standard density. In comparison, copper has only 8.96 g/mL of density. The density of 18k and 14k gold items are 16.5 g/mL and 14.0 g/mL, respectively. The densities of alloys vary depending on how much gold is present.

9) How To Tell If Gold Is Real: The Secret Weapon: Acid Tests

How to tell if gold is real? When it does not react with any acidic element. So, you can use vinegar or nitric acid to find out its authenticity. 

a) Testing with Vinegar

Gold is almost inert, so vinegar's acidic element cannot change its color or properties. Use white vinegar since it's the most acidic of all types. 

Just add a couple of drops of vinegar to the jewelry piece and see if the color changes. It's fake if it does; otherwise, you have a real piece. Give it at least 15 minutes to ensure enough time for the vinegar to set in and cause a reaction. 

b) Testing Gold with Nitric Acid

Nitric acid does not react with gold, but it can melt the common metals in fake items. Careless application may ruin the ornament. 

Use a touchstone or a jewelry engraver to create a tiny but slightly deep scratch in a part that is not easily visible. Pour a few drops of acid on the scratch mark and if it turns green or milk-white, the piece is not real. 

You can do the same test with aqua regia (75% nitric acid and 25% hydrochloric acid) too, which can melt gold. Pour a drop on the scratch mark to see if it disappears. If it does, your jewelry piece is genuine.  

10) The Electronic Tests

If you are still not convinced about these tests for how to tell if gold is real, try an electronic test. A Sigma Metalytics machine will give precise results in seconds. 

The machine uses electromagnetic waves to detect the resistance of the metals of an item. So, if your piece has a gold plating with copper or nickel underneath, this tool can detect that difference. 

precious metal verifier

However, the machine is accurate only for coins and bullions. For finding out the authenticity of a jewelry piece, use any of the gold testing machines available in the market. 

11) How To Tell If Gold Is Real: The X-ray Test

An XRF Spectrometer will give you the most accurate answer without damaging the prized possession in any way. You can examine any type of gold item with this machine. 

A spectrometer sends X-rays through any item to charge its atoms into a higher power level. When the charged atoms cool down, they release radiation, which the spectrometer can detect and analyze. 

Gold's radiation is different from any other metal, so it will be easy to identify the authenticity of your item. 

12) The Jeweler Test

Appointing a jeweler to test real or fake gold is ideally the best method. They are professionals who have been trained for it. They also have access to equipment and different chemicals that can determine if the weight, shape, color, or purity of gold are right.

jeweler inspects silver ring with acid

Image by Bibiphoto via Shutterstock 

Many jewelry stores offer testing services for a small fee. This fee is well worth the peace of mind to know that your precious metals are not gold fillers or less expensive metals.

How To Tell If Gold Is Real: Bonus Tests (Not Highly Recommended)

We don't highly recommend these tests because they don't give conclusive results. However, they cost nothing and in no way damage your precious gold. So, why not give them a try?

a) The Sound Test

Strike the gold piece with a metal object and listen for how it sounds. Gold makes a high-pitched, sonorous sound that rings on for a long time. Other gold-lookalike metals like copper or zinc will create a duller and shorter sound. 

However, you cannot completely rely on the result because the sound of a 24k and 18k article will not be the same, although both are genuine. 

b) The Bite Test 

You can check the authenticity of gold by biting it, which is not reliable but very popular. You must have seen Olympians biting their gold medals. This is done because gold is a very soft metal, so it can be easily bitten and the teeth marks will appear on the surface. 

athlete biting a gold medal

The purer the piece, the deeper the teeth marks will be. The texture of gold is also much smoother than other metals, such as silver and nickel, making it easier to chew and identify in comparison.

The Bottom Line

If your gold items pass the tests mentioned above, then congratulations! You can now wear it with pride knowing that the beautiful items are not just for show but hold real value. If, however, the DIY methods can't clear your confusion about how to tell if gold is real, try to get a second opinion from someone who knows about these things or take a professional service.

FAQs Section

Q. How do you check gold?

A. A fast way to identify whether something contains imitation gold would be to look closely at the color of the metal on especially bright surfaces like light bulbs. Real 24 karat gold has an almost orange-yellow hue on such surfaces while inexpensive metals often display a yellow-gold shade.

Ways to test if something made from gold is fake include whether or not it rusts or feels heavy compared to its size. Commonly, jewelers will test gems by using acid because gold is non-reactive.

Q. Does real gold stick to a magnet?

A. No. Gold is naturally a non-magnetic metal. So, a magnet cannot attract a 24k or 22k gold item. But 18k, 14k, or 10k gold items have a significant amount of metal alloy mixed in it. You can pull them out with a magnet if those metals are ferromagnetic. 

Q. How to differentiate between gold or gold plated items?

A. The magnet and acid tests are the best way to tell the difference between unadulterated gold and gold-plated items. A piece of solid gold will not react to these tests. Checking the weight is another good method since a piece of gold-plated item will be lighter than an authentic gold of similar size. 

Of course, the best way to get the correct result is to use a Sigma Metalytics machine or an XRF spectrometer. 

Q. How can I tell if my 24k gold is pure?

A. Check the hallmark and color. A bright orangish-yellow shade with letters or numbers, like "24k" or "999", stamped somewhere gives a primary indication about its authenticity. Also, it will show zero magnetism and no kind of acidic reaction. 

Q. How can I examine gold's authenticity at home?

A. Using vinegar is the easiest method because we all have vinegar at home. You can also rub it with your skin to see the color of either your skin or the gold piece changes. 

Q. Can vinegar tell if gold is genuine?

A. To some extent, yes. Although you should not rely on the result completely and examine the items with other tests too. Forged gold will turn black or green because of the presence of other metals in it. Some counterfeits can create smoke or cause a cracking sound too. 

Q. How can you test gold at home without acid?

A. Without using any acidic liquid, you can check a gold item's authenticity by scratching it with a ceramic or testing it with a powerful magnet. Rubbing with the skin works too. You can also gently hit it with another metal to see if it produces a long sonorous sound. The bite test works too but it will leave teeth marks on the item.