If those alluring display racks on city streets have taught us anything, it's that all that glitters is certainly not gold. But for items that have been passed down for generations, given as gifts, or purchased through independent retailers, knowing how to tell if gold is real can be a valuable skill to have. Whether you're looking to evaluate a big-ticket jewelry item or simply want to brush up on your amateur metallurgy, we've assembled a few tips to help you get started. Fortunately, discerning whether gold is real is easier than you might think—even without the help of a professional appraiser.
Read on to learn the four steps of authenticating real gold.
Seeing whether your item sinks or floats is one of the most reliable ways to determine if gold is real. Since gold is classified as a heavy metal, it should sink when dropped into water. While other metals such as nickel, copper, and chromium also sink, any item that floats is definitely not gold.
Most authentic gold jewelry pieces bear a hallmark, a small stamp noting the karat weight of the gold. On jewelry items of American origin, this usually shows up as a number followed by the letter K. For instance, a piece of jewelry that bears the hallmark 24K is made from 100% solid gold, while an item inscribed with 14K is roughly 60% gold. For European jewelry, the hallmark usually includes the percentage of gold in three decimal points. In France, for example, a 14K bracelet might be stamped .583. While this can be valuable in determining if the gold is real, two exceptions are very old, genuine vintage jewelry and jewelry that has been crafted outside of Europe and North America.
A very reliable but more involved way to tell if gold is real is to perform a nitric acid test. As a note, this test involves using a highly reactive nitric acid, necessitating a number of safety precautions. Also, this method should not be used for jewelry that has aesthetic value you wish to fully preserve since it involves slightly damaging the piece. However, this method can be a great choice for scrap metal and non-jewelry items. To perform this test, make a tiny scratch on a less noticeable area of the piece with a tweezer or nail file. Then, apply a drop of nitric acid to the scratch. If there's no reaction, then the piece is real gold. By contrast, gold over sterling yields a cloudy white substance, while other metals and gold plating tend to turn up green.