Is That “Gold” Ring Real Gold? How to Tell Fake Gold from the Real Deal

Nothing can compare to the beauty and richness of real gold jewelry. Throughout the centuries, gold has been prized and coveted by people the world over. Since ancient times, gold has been used to adorn royalty and to display wealth. During the gold rush years in California and later in Alaska, people abandoned their homes and livelihoods across the country to make the often long and arduous journey west in the hope of striking it rich. Gold remains, to this very day, a symbol of wealth and refined taste, and is still the most popular metal used to create fine jewelry.

Even as you read these words, chances are very good that you’re either wearing a piece of gold jewelry yourself, or there are one or more pieces of it in the jewelry box sitting on your bedroom dresser. But suppose you’ve assumed that the necklace, ring, or earrings sitting on the satin lining inside that jewelry box is real 10, 18 or 24-karat gold, but it’s actually gold-plated? How can you know for sure that it’s real gold?

The Acid Test

The easiest way to tell if your gold jewelry is real is to take it to a jeweler and have it “acid tested”. The acid test not only tells the jeweler that a piece is made of gold (or not) but also lets her know about the purity of the gold contained in the piece. The purer the gold, the higher the karat (e.g., 10 karat indicates a lower purity of gold than 18 or 24 karat gold).

Look at the Markings

Gold jewelry is sometimes marked with a code that indicates its level of purity. On real gold jewelry, you’ll see a number followed by a “k”, which stands for “karat”. So 10k would indicate that the piece is 10 karat gold, 12k is 12 karat gold, and so on. (Note: You’ll need a jeweler’s loupe or a strong magnifying glass to see these tiny markings, which are usually on the inside of rings and bracelets, on the clasps of necklaces or chains and on the edges of the backings on earrings.)

Sometimes, instead of marking gold jewelry as indicated above, the piece may be stamped with numbers such as 333, which would indicate that the piece is roughly 33% (1/3) gold. A piece marked 999 would indicate a 24 karat — or nearly pure gold content.

Even gold-plated pieces — jewelry made of other metals that are coated with a thin layer of gold — will sometimes have markings, but they’re different from the markings on real gold jewelry. The same is true of gold filled jewelry. Here are examples of the markings on jewelry that is gold-plated or gold filled …

  • HGE (heavy gold electroplate)
  • RGP (rolled gold plate)
  • GP (gold-plated)
  • 1/10 (Fractions are meant to tell you the ratio of gold to the metal used to make the piece.)

Gold-plated pieces will also sometimes be stamped with the words “plate” or “gold filled”.

If you’re shopping for gold at flea markets or tag sales, it’s a good idea to carry a loupe or a magnifying glass along with you so you can check a piece of jewelry, especially if it’s being represented as solid gold, and priced as such.

The Magnet Test

Another less reliable way to test for gold content is to use a strong magnet. Real gold will not be attracted to it, so if the piece you’re testing is attracted to the magnet, it may not be real gold. The reason that this test is not particularly reliable is that a piece that is attracted to the magnet may still be gold that is of low purity and made with an alloy or alloys that are magnetic metals.

In the end, the acid test is still the most reliable way to tell whether a piece is made mostly of gold. We use the word “mostly” because jewelry is rarely if ever, made with 100% pure gold. That’s because if it were, it would be very soft and subject to becoming misshapen. If you’re lucky enough to have a beautiful piece of real gold jewelry, cherish it and wear it proudly, because there really is nothing quite so beautiful as a gleaming piece of gold, the metal that’s captivated humanity since the beginning of civilization!