How Can You Tell If Gold Is Real?

Is this piece of gold jewelry real or not?

So you've just got a niece piece of jewelry either as a gift or as a recent purchase from someone you know. You now rejoice for having such a possession and are already aching to wear it on a forthcoming special occasion; however, one inevitable question that may crop up in your mind at some point forward is: “Is this a real gold jewelry?” More often than not, one usually hesitates to ask the question to himself or herself especially when the jewelry in question was received as a gift or was sold by someone close. But the simple truth is that, sometimes and out of plain curiosity or utter eagerness or a subtle hint of doubt, one simply cannot just resist the urge to ask such question at some point. Whatever the case may be, determining whether or not a jewelry is made up of real gold can be done in a few simple ways - even at home. The most common testing methods are widely used by jewelers and pawn shops. These are classified into two general categories - qualitative and quantitative test methods.

Telling If Gold Is Real or Not - Qualitative and Quantitative

1. Qualitative Testing

Qualitative testing for gold means that the jewelry piece in question is examined for genuineness. In case some of you might not be aware, jewelry pieces can either be real gold, gold-plated, gold-washed, or gold-filled. There is actually nothing wrong with these pieces even if they're not real gold. What becomes utterly wrong is when shady sellers market and price their items as real gold when in fact, it's not.



2. Quantitative Testing

Qualitative testing for gold means that the jewelry piece in question is examined to determine its karat value or purity. Jewelries are actually gold alloys, a mixture of gold and other metals. Pure gold, usually denoted as 24K or 24 karat, is too soft and malleable for making jewelries, which is the reason why gold is chemically mixed with other metals such as nickel, silver, zinc, copper, and palladium to form those glittering gold alloys which we've come to know as “gold jewelry”. As a general rule, the higher the karat rating of the jewelry item, the higher the gold content in the alloy.

Under-karating of jewelry is a prevalent problem and is one of the shady marketing tactics employed by unscrupulous sellers. The most common scenario for this is when a shady seller presents a piece as a higher-karat item than it really is. In the US, 10K is the lowest amount of gold purity for any jewelry piece to be considered as “gold” or “legal gold”. Anything of lower karat value than 10K is considered “not gold”.


How To Tell If It's Real Gold - Qualitative Testing

a. Magnet Testing

Real gold isn't attracted to magnets. We'll skip the technical details as to why. All we really need to know is that real gold won't be attracted to magnets. The best magnets for this purpose are the cobalt-samarium magnets or the neodymium magnets, both classified as “rare-earth magnets” known for their intense pulling forces. These can easily be procured on the web or a local electronics outlet and do not cost much.

To get started, hold the jewelry piece near the powerful magnet. Try to feel for any attraction between the piece and the magnet. If there's any form of attraction no matter how slight, then it's not real gold.

However, it's important to bear in mind that this test won't prove that the piece is real gold. What it will only prove is that it's not real gold in any way and as such, there's no need to proceed with further testing, thus, saving you time and sparing you the hassles.

b. Hallmark Examination

Using a loupe or any other powerful magnifying glass, try to visually examine the piece for hallmarks. A genuine one usually has well-detailed and professionally-stamped hallmarks. However, this test is not fool-proof. As counterfeiters become more and more creative, fake hallmarks can be made to look just like the real one. Furthermore, also take due note that the absence of hallmarks doesn't automatically mean that the piece is not genuine. A few known causes why a genuine gold jewelry piece can be devoid of any hallmark includes, but not limited to: wear and tear, resizing, repair has been done on the item, size of the item is too small to put hallmarks on, or the item is custom-made. As a quick guide, hereunder are the hallmarks commonly used in jewelries:

i. “10K” or “417” or both - purity is 41.7% gold
ii. “14K” or “585” or both - purity is 58.5% gold
iii. “18K” or “750” or both - purity is 75.0% gold
iv. “22K” or “917” or both - purity is 91.7% gold
v. “24K” or “999” or both - purity is 99.9% gold (very rare for jewelries)

Real gold ring with visible hallmark
Real gold ring with visible hallmark

c. Examination of Friction Points

Again, using a loupe or any other powerful magnifying glass suited for the purpose, be on the lookout for discoloration on the friction points where rubbing occurs the most such as on the links or on the clasps. Plated gold usually wears off, even under normal usage, and exposes the metal underneath.


d. Electronic Testing for Conductivity

This is one of the most accurate methods in testing for real gold; however, a good-quality electronic tester kit is quite expensive at prices of $500 or more. Although lower-priced electronic gold testers are also available, the consumer slogan “you get what you pay for” will usually be worth keeping in mind.

What an electronic gold tester does is determine a jewelry's conductivity and benchmark the results with the known conductivity attributes of real gold. Different brands and models of this type of tester may have different features and may have varying instructions for proper operation. As such, it's imperative that you read and understand the instruction manual that comes with it.

e. Nitric Acid Testing

Using the nitric acid test is one of the oldest yet highly reliable methods used by jewelers and pawn shops around the world. It works under the scientific fact that real gold doesn't react with highly corrosive chemicals such as acids. Moreover, this test will involve the use of nitric acid and a file.

To get started, select an inconspicuous spot on the item and file it to around 1/12 of an inch deep. This ensures that any base metal, even for heavily gold-filled, heavily gold-plated, or heavily gold-washed jewelry items, will be exposed and penetrated by the acid.

Using a tiny dropper and working on a glass surface or any other non-metallic surface, and wearing protective gloves and eye protection, put a tiny amount of nitric acid into the filed area and keep a keen eye for any reaction. If the spot produces a greenish color or a pinkish red color or a silvery white color or exhibits any sizzling or bubbling reaction, then you can be certain that the item in question is either gold-plated, gold-filled or gold-washed and not real gold.

Note: As a precaution against accidental spills, keep an acid neutralizer such as bowl of sodium bicarbonate, commonly known as baking soda, or an alkali solution such as a powerful glass cleaner, within quick reach. Keep in mind that nitric acid is dangerous and will cause burns on the skin.

Quantitative Testing - How Much Gold Is In It?

Now that you've determined that, after qualitative testing, the subject item is made of real gold, you can now then try to determine its gold purity or its actual karat value. Some of you might be asking at this point: "Is quantitative testing necessary?". In essence, it isn't especially if your ultimate goal for testing is just to determine whether or not the jewelry piece is real. However, this isn't mostly the case. Almost everybody who are proud owners of real gold jewelries would certainly want to show off the karat values of those; hence, the reason why quantitative testing for gold is, more often than not, the usual next step.

For this method, a testing kit will be needed. Testing kits for this purpose are usually composed of the following: pre-mixed acid solutions for testing karat values of 10K, 14K, 18K, and 22K, gold-tipped needles of varying karat values (usually 10K, 14K, 18K, and 22K), a touchstone and a file. These kits can easily be bought online or any of your local jewelry shops. Here's how the testing is done:

1. Rub the item on the surface of the touchstone. The aim is to leave a straight, visible streak around one-and-a-half to two inches in length. For brevity, we'll call this streak the “test streak”. To ensure that the test streak will be adequate enough for testing, rub the item (10 upward and 10 downward strokes) on the touchstone using adequate force.

2. Put a tiny drop of the 10K pre-mix acid solution onto the topmost portion of the test streak. If that portion disappears, which means that the gold material has been dissolved by the 10K pre-mix acid solution, then the tested item has a karat value lesser than 10K and is considered as “fake gold” under US standards. On the other hand, if that portion exhibits no changes in any way, it means that the tested item has a karat value of at least 10K and will have to be tested further with the next higher-karat acid solution which, in this case, is the 14K.

3. Put a tiny drop of the 14K acid solution onto a portion just beneath that portion where you've applied the 10K solution and observe for any changes. If this portion disappears, it means that the tested item has a karat value lesser than 14K but more than 10K. By the same principle, if that portion exhibits no changes, it means that the piece is at least 14K, and further testing will have to be done using the next acid solution of higher-karat value which is the 18K.

4. Put a tiny drop of the 18K solution onto a portion just below the portion where the 18K solution was applied. In a similar manner, observe for any changes. If this portion disappears, it means that the tested item is less than 18K but more than 14K (the previous acid solution that was used), and further testing using the 22K solution will have to be undertaken.

5. Put a tiny drop of the 22K solution onto a portion just below the portion in the test streak where you applied the 18K acid solution. Keenly observe for any changes, keeping in mind the same principle used with the previous steps. If the portion is dissolved by the solution, then it means that the tested jewelry item has a karat value between 18K and 22K. If the result is otherwise, then the karat value of the item is at least 22K.

Some Final Words on Testing for Real Gold


1. Handling nitric acids or other acid solutions comes with risks as they can cause severe skin burns or even become explosive given the right conditions. With that, always handle acids with extreme caution and never ever fail to wear protective gloves, protective glasses, and if possible, protective clothing when doing the acid test.

2. Although using acid solutions for qualitative and quantitative testing is a highly accurate method, there will still be limitations. These limitations are usually caused by the level of experience or the lack of experience of the one conducting the test. As such, there may be possibilities that assumptions can be made or the test results can be misinterpreted as false positives or false negatives. But looking at the bright side, one can pull it off consistently with practice. Just keep in mind that even the most skilled of all jewelry testers started as a novice.

3. Of course, if you think that you won't be able to pull it off or you dread getting near acids, then you can always take the item to a certified jeweler or have it assayed by a certified testing laboratory. It would probably be much quicker, safer, cheaper and easier for you to do it this way rather than doing the tests yourselves.

Feel Like an Expert Jeweler Now? Let's See. Here's a short quiz.

Here's a video that summarizes it all:

Hoped you found this hub useful. Thanks.

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