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How To Tell If Gold Is Real Or If You Have Fake Gold

John-Rothans

Written by John Rothans

Jul 15, 2022

How Can I Tell If Gold Is Real?

If you recently purchased or inherited gold, whether in the form of gold coins, bullion, or jewelry, you may be curious about how to tell whether that gold is real. Gold is a rare commodity, and you only want to add real, genuine gold to a portfolio.

Of course, the best way to ensure that the gold coins or bullion you buy is real is to purchase from a reputable dealer. Buying gold through a trusted dealer is the best way to prevent paying real gold prices for fake gold.

Unfortunately, there are scammers pushing coins and bullion that look like gold. In truth, these products may be gold-plated or gold-washed, or it could be pyrite or another alloy meant to appear like gold. When you know what to look for and how to tell if something is real gold, you can protect yourself from being taken advantage of.

When you hear the term “pure gold,” that refers to gold that is 99.9% pure, which is denoted as .999 or 24k. Some coins even go up to “four nines” or 99.99% pure. That said, the low limit for what is considered gold in the United States is 10k, or 41.7% pure. In Germany, an item can have a purity as low as 8k and be considered gold. This means that “real” gold exists within a range. The higher the purity, the more expensive the gold will often be, though other considerations such as supply and demand factors or certified grade can also impact the price of a gold coin.

If you already own the gold coins in question, you should know that a master numismatist or assayer is the most trustworthy source of determining the difference between real and fake gold. However, you can do certain tests at home to figure out if the gold coin you’re holding is real.

Before learning about those tests, however, it is important to understand the different forms of fake gold.

Types of Fake Gold

It’s important to note that fake gold isn’t only used for illegal scams. For example, you may like the look of gold jewelry or want to incorporate the aesthetic of gold into your home décor but don’t want to pay the full price of real gold.

That said, you never want to be caught off-guard by someone trying to sell you fake gold when you intend to buy real gold. Here are a few different forms fake gold may take.

Gold Plating

Gold plating refers to a process wherein a thin layer of gold is bonded over an existing metal. Since it is chemically bonded, the plating can last for years and won’t chip away like paint or lacquer.

This is a very common way to create gold-looking jewelry or coins for much lower prices. Since the metal inside is less expensive, gold-plated products are, by their very nature, cheaper.

You can find gold-plated jewelry in stores or markets all over the world, and some mints even release gold-plated coins (though the U.S. Mint has never produced or sold gold-plated coins). Gold-plated items will often have a small marking denoting what they are.

Although plated in real gold, most of the metal used in creating a gold-plated piece is a less expensive metal (like silver, copper, or some alloy). Because of this, the price of gold-plated coins should, in general, be significantly less than the price of real gold.

Gold Wash

Gold-washing is a different way of coating less expensive metal with a thin gold layer. Unlike gold-plated pieces, gold-washed coins are dipped or burnished in gold. This is a common way of making less expensive products that appear gold, but it is not as common as gold plating.

Because the gold is dipped and not chemically bonded, the gold exterior wears off more quickly than gold plating. As gold-washed products are worn or handled, the edges will often show the metal underneath.

Like gold-plated items, gold-washed products are fairly common and are often labeled as gold-washed. Because of their low gold content, these products often have poor resale value.

Pyrite

If you’ve ever gone to a park that has a “gold-digging” or “gold-sifting” feature, then you’ve probably heard of pyrite, or “fool’s gold.” Unlike gold-plated or gold-washed items that have a small amount of gold on the surface, pyrite does not contain any real gold.

Pyrite is an iron sulfite mineral that can initially look like gold. It shares gold’s amber shine and can often be found near gold deposits. However, pyrite is fairly brittle and oxidizes over time. It is used in lawn treatment and a number of other chemical processes and can be used in jewelry as well.

Pyrite can be an inexpensive way for kids to have the thrill of “gold” in their rock collection without the actual cost of gold, but its worth does not extend much beyond that because pyrite is a very common mineral.

Pinchbeck

Pinchbeck is a copper and zinc alloy that has the appearance of gold. It was commonly used before 1840 as an inexpensive alternative to gold jewelry and décor. Pinchbeck is lighter in weight than gold, will tarnish over time, and may give off a coppery glow when examined in natural light.

Unlike the other “fake gold” options listed, pinchbeck is no longer used to make imitation gold pieces. The most common ways to find pinchbeck today are as jewelry found in an antique store or received through inheritance. While a market still exists for pinchbeck jewelry, it would be very unusual to encounter a coin made of pinchbeck.

Current Anti-Counterfeiting Measures

The U.S. Mint is regularly working to fight against counterfeit gold, silver, and other precious metals. Along with government agencies dedicated to tracking and prosecuting counterfeiters, mints around the world have also implemented state-of-the-art anticounterfeiting measures.

  • There are new marks on U.S. Mint–issued coins, like a new reeded gap edge on the 1 oz. Gold American Eagle Type 2 bullion coin in Brilliant Uncirculated condition.
  • Many coins have features that shift during movement, like the trident that becomes a lock on the Royal Mint’s Gold Britannia coins. Knowing what features to look for on newer coins is one of the best ways to spot a counterfeit.
  • The U.S. Mint issues gold bullion with gradients on the back of its coins that are very difficult to replicate.

If you ever have a concern that the gold coin or bullion you received is counterfeit, you’ll find that the U.S. Mint lists a number of organizations and numismatic societies that can help verify whether the gold you have is real.

How You Can Test Gold at Home

Although the best way to test if gold is real is to bring it to a licensed dealer or numismatist, you can do some tests at your home to see if the gold you have is real. But be warned: Some of the following tests may risk damaging your gold, even if it is real. If you have gold with sentimental value, you may prefer taking it to a dealer to check its authenticity.

The Float Test

One of the easiest tests you can do at home to tell if something is real gold is to put it in water. Real gold is dense and does not float. If the coin or bullion floats or takes its time sinking, it may not be real gold.

Other metals sink quickly, so you shouldn’t only rely on the float test to tell if your gold is real—but if it does float, it is definitely not real gold.

Test Gold With Vinegar

One of the things that makes gold so unique is that it does not tarnish or change based on contact with other chemicals. The vinegar test is an easy way to see if gold is real.

Put a few drops of vinegar on your gold and check for a change in color after 15 minutes. If this is a ring or some other item you intend on keeping regardless of the results, you may want to place the drop of vinegar inside the band.

Real gold does not change color. If your item changes color, even just slightly, it is not pure gold. This can be particularly helpful in testing coins or bullion claiming to be pure or close to pure gold.

It is important to remember that almost all gold jewelry is mixed with some other form of metal (usually silver, copper, or aluminum). Gold is soft and malleable, so it is not ideal for making jewelry in its pure form. As long as there is at least 47.1% gold (or 10k) mixed with the other metal, the jewelry is still considered real gold.

The vinegar test may show some discoloration on lower-karat gold, so the vinegar test is not always sufficient to determine whether jewelry is real gold.

The Density Test

Gold is a very dense metal, with an average of 19.3 grams per cubic centimeter (g/cc). For context, lead is 11.4 g/cc, copper is 9.0 g/cc, aluminum is 2.7 g/cc, and water is 1.0 g/cc. One of the more accurate ways to tell if your gold is real is by determining the density of your gold.

In order to do the density test:

  1. Weigh your gold. (You will want to use a gram weight or kitchen weight that can account for at least a tenth of a gram.)
  2. Fill a clear vessel with milliliter measurement markings with water.
  3. Record the water level before and after putting your gold in.
  4. Subtract the difference and divide the gold’s weight by this number.
  5. Compare your number to average densities of gold.

The density will vary depending on the purity level, but it should at least be close to the average of 19.3 g/cc.

The Magnet Test

Real gold is not magnetic. For the magnet test, you can use a very strong magnet to see whether your gold reacts to it. If the gold is attracted to it, it is unfortunately fake gold.

In order for this to work, you need to use a strong enough magnet. A kitchen magnet wouldn’t be strong enough to pull the metals gold may be mixed with. You should use a neodymium or ferrite magnet to conduct a magnet test on gold.  

How to Use Markings to Tell If Gold Is Real

Apart from do-it-yourself methods like the density or vinegar tests, you can also use markings to tell if gold is real.

Look for a Letter Marking on the Gold.

If gold is gold-plated, gold-filled, or gold-washed, there will usually be a small letter marking somewhere on the gold indicating this. Start by looking for any of these markings:

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

For coins, you can often check for the mintmark to see if the gold is real or fake.

Look for a Number Marking on the Gold.

Real gold will often have an official number, called the hallmark, that tells you the percentage of gold within the coin or bullion. Pure gold will have either .999 (the millesimal fineness number) or 24k. Once you find the hallmark, you can discover how pure your gold is.

However, not all gold coins display this number. American Gold Eagle coins, for example, are minted from 22k gold and display “1 OZ. FINE GOLD” rather than an exact fineness.

A fineness number below 471 or 10k is not considered real gold in the U.S.

Gold Testing Kits

There are also gold testing kits available for purchase. These kits often rely on a chemical dropped into a small scratch on your gold. This will damage the gold even if it is real, so this method should be used with caution.

If this is a concern, you should take your gold to a dealer or licensed numismatist. Many places offer gold testing either for free or a small fee.

Always Purchase Gold from A Reputable Dealer.

The best way to avoid fake gold is to go through a dealer you can trust. Not only do most reputable dealers work directly with mints, but some may have the knowledge and equipment to ensure that their gold products are real and of the proper purity before offering them to clients.

U.S. Money Reserve wants to help you avoid buying fake gold and making other common mistakes when you purchase gold.

If you are ready to purchase gold or other precious metals, you can request a free information kit from us.

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