When shopping for gold jewelry, you may come across a gorgeous piece without any proof that it’s actually real gold. Or, perhaps you just inherited a treasure chest of family heirlooms and there’s a pot of gold included. Is it costume jewelry or the real deal? Maybe it’s gold vermeil, gold-plated or gold filled? Ultimately, how can you tell if something is gold?
If you’ve found yourself in a similar situation, you’ve come to the right place.
Ideally, every piece of gold jewelry would be stamped with a hallmark to signify its authenticity. Unfortunately, the reality is a tad more complicated. Furthermore, we can’t always identify jewelry stamps or understand what they mean. Thankfully, there are several ways to discern whether or not gold jewelry real.
While it might not be visible to an untrained eye, here are some steps for how to tell if gold jewelry is real, or an imposter.
The first step to identifying real gold is to look for the hallmark. A hallmark is a stamp on a piece of jewelry that informs the buyer of exactly what it is they’re buying.
In most countries, it’s law for jewelers to not only notate the authenticity of real gold, but also the karatage. Otherwise, there’s no safe way to know whether you’re buying 14K gold, or 24K gold jewelry. There are significant differences between the two involving price, value, purity, etc., which is why hallmarks are crucial.
Let’s talk more about why karats matter. Karats relate to purity and how much real gold is used in jewelry. Pure gold is incredibly soft and 99.9% pure gold jewelry, or 24K gold, is less common. However, it’s a good gauge to help you understand value.
24K gold is virtually pure gold and thus more expensive than smaller karat jewelry. If you encounter 10K gold, that means it contains 10 of 24 karats of gold. As you can see, this is just a fraction compared to 24/24.
Does this mean that every piece of real gold will have a marking? If only it were that simple. If you’re buying used jewelry, there is always the potential that the piece was resized and lost its hallmark during the procedure.
Conversely, you may also encounter stamped gold jewelry that looks legit, but is actually a contrived fake. To avoid falling victim of a jewelry scam, you’ll want to buy gold jewelry from a reputable retailer. It also doesn’t hurt to have some other tricks up your sleeve.
Can’t find the hallmark? Time for a jewelry inspection. Do you see discoloration? Is a base metal shining through the gold coat? Perhaps in silver or copper? Chances are you’re inspecting a piece of gold plated jewelry, which should be stamped with a 925 hallmark.
There’s nothing wrong with buying gold plated jewelry, but it’s not solid gold and should be labeled accordingly.
Bottom line: solid gold will not discolor.
Lastly, evaluate the weight of the jewelry. Gold is dense and relatively heavy compared to fake gold. Karatage and the size of the jewelry will vary, but generally real gold will weigh more than fake gold. If you need a second opinion, have the piece inspected by a professional jewelry appraiser.
Now’s your chance to get creative. Here are a few options for how to test gold at home.
Disclaimer: Some of these gold testing methods can damage the jewelry, so you really only want to try these on pieces that belong to you, and you aren’t worried about damaging.
This method is only recommended for scrap jewelry, not gold jewelry you intend on wearing. Essentially, you make a tiny indent or scratch with a nail file. Then you’ll drop nitric acid into the scratch. If there’s a visible reaction, the gold is fake. If nothing happens, the gold is most likely real. Take care when working with acid as this method is best left to a trained professional in a safe environment.
Definitely not. A simple method to identify gold at home is to hold it up to a magnet. If it sticks, it’s a fake. If it doesn’t bond with the magnet, it’s real gold.
As previously stated, gold is heavy. Fill a bucket or cup with water. Gently drop your gold jewelry into the water and it should sink. If it floats—it’s fake.
Wait, what? Yes, it sounds a bit odd because it is a bit odd and certainly not nearly as reliable as other methods. However, it’s worth a try if you’re feeling experimental. To test gold at home with makeup, apply liquid foundation to your forehead. Next, rub the gold across it and see if a black streak appears. If so, the gold is likely real.
If you don’t feel like fussing with these methods of identifying gold at home, simply get it appraised. The most legitimate and reliable way to tell if gold is real is with a reputable jewelry appraisal. Of course, you should expect to pay a fee for the appraisal, but it’ll save you time and worry because you’ll have a solid answer on whether or not your gold is real or fake.
When in doubt, use the following stamps to recognize the various karatages of real gold. Keep in mind these stamps can be fake, which is why it’s important to practice vigilance and only buy gold jewelry from a jeweler you trust.
10K Gold: 10K, 417 (41.7% gold)
14K Gold: 14K, 14K P, 585 (58.5% gold)
18K Gold: 18K, 750 (75% gold)
22K Gold: 22K, 917 (91.7% gold)
24K Gold: 24K, 999 (99.9% gold)
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