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7 Ways to Tell If the Gold You’re Purchasing is Real

Gold is one of the most valuable and sought-after commodities on the planet. Because of its value, inexpensive jewelry can be made to look more expensive if it appears to contain gold, even if that gold is fake. If you have a gold item, whether it is scrap or a valuable heirloom, you may be interested to know if it is an imitation or real gold. This is especially true if you are looking to buy such an item. Here are some ways you can tell if the gold you have or are looking to buy is real.

READ MORE: How to Get More Money when Selling Gold

Look for a Hallmark

Close-Up Photo of Hallmark on Gold Jewelry
Image via Flickr by Royal Claddagh.

The best way to tell if the gold you are purchasing is real is to look for a hallmark. This is a small stamp indicating the gold’s karat weight. Different locations use different measurements. In the U.S., the hallmark number is a fraction of 24. This means a hallmark of 12K, or 12 karat, means that half the jewelry is gold. Pure gold is 24K. In Europe, you should see a number between .000 and 1.000, with 1.000 being 100 percent gold — pure gold.

If the hallmark is absent, this could mean the jewelry does not contain real gold. However, there are other possible explanations. It is possible the hallmark has worn away over time, which can happen if the item is in constant contact with skin. Also, if the jewelry is old, it might be real gold but the item was made before hallmarking became a consistent practice.

Look for a Letter Mark

If the item of jewelry has the letters GP, GF, or GEP stamped on it, these indicate that it is not made of real gold. GP means it is gold plated, GF means it is gold filled, and GEP means it is gold electroplate. That is, the jewelry is made of some other metal with a thin layer of gold on top. While this gold plating may be real, it is an insufficient amount of gold for the item to be considered true gold.

Test With Nitric Acid

Find a place on the jewelry where you can make a small scratch, perhaps under a clasp or on the inside of a ring. Make a mark deep enough to scratch through the top layer of gold. Carefully apply a drop of nitric acid to the mark, and determine if the mark turns green or milky. There will be no reaction if the jewelry is either gold or mostly gold.

Nitric acid is a dangerous chemical, so you should take every precaution when handling it. Wear gloves and goggles, and be sure the room is well-ventilated. Given the potential damage this test does to the jewelry, you may not want to apply it to something of great personal value. At least consider having a professional jeweler do the test for you.

Test the Item’s Density

The density of gold is approximately 19.3 grams per milliliter (g/mL). The closer your gold item’s density is to this figure, the more real gold it contains. To find the density of your gold item, you will need a scale that measures in grams and a container with markings in milliliters that is big enough to hold the item with room to spare.

Weigh your item and note its weight in grams. Next, place your container on a flat surface and half-fill it with water. Record how full the container is in milliliters. Carefully lower your item into the container so the water doesn’t splash over the sides. Write down the new water level. Then subtract the first measurement from the second to find out how many milliliters of water your item displaced. This gives you the item’s volume.

To find the density of your gold item, divide its volume by its weight. For example, if your item weighs 40 grams and has a volume of 2.2 milliliters, its density will be 40 / 2.2, which is 18.18 g/mL. Since the density of gold is 19.3 g/mL, the chances are your item is mostly real gold. Of course, other metals have a weight similar to gold, so this test is a good guide but not completely foolproof. 

Test Against a Ceramic Tile

This test involves scratching your gold item; however, you should be able to get results with minimum damage. Find or purchase an unglazed ceramic tile. It must be unglazed since tile glaze affects the results. Gently rub your item against the tile until you see fragments of gold flaking off. If it leaves a gold streak, there’s a good chance your item is real gold. A black mark indicates the gold is fake.

Drop the Item in Water

Fill a container at least half-full with water, plenty to cover your gold item with some to spare. Gently drop your gold item into the water. Real gold is a heavy metal and will not float, so if your gold item floats you know it is not real gold. Also, if you notice rust or tarnishing on the item after being in water, this is also a sign it is not real gold since gold doesn’t rust or tarnish. Given the risk of tarnishing, you may not want to do this experiment with an item that is valuable to you.

Use a Strong Magnet

Since gold is not magnetic, you can try using a magnet to see if it attracts the jewelry. You may need to buy a magnet from a hardware store since most kitchen magnets are not strong enough. Be aware that you might get a reaction from the jewelry if the gold is blended with magnetic material such as iron. Also, the jewelry may be made mostly of stainless steel, which is not magnetic.

While these tests can give you an indication whether your item is real or fake gold, the only foolproof way to know is to have the item professionally appraised. If you are a looking for an appraiser, check out Las Vegas Jewelry and Coin Buyers. With over 100 years of combined experience we can give a quick appraisal and offer you immediate cash purchase.

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