The difference between gold and gold-plated items is often very subtle. When purchasing new pieces, however, knowing this difference is essential. Let’s talk about how you can tell which is which.
You can tell whether or not something is gold or gold plated by looking at the initial stamps, usually which hold 2-3 initials clarifying the material. You can also check for the differences using magnetism, color, acid, and performing a scratch test.
As you gather gold for your collections, it’s crucial to identify whether something is gold or gold-plated. This article will give you all the details about identifying the subtle differences between the two. Let’s jump in.
1. Look at the Initial Stamps
The initial stamps are the quickest and easiest way to spot the difference between gold and gold-plated items. You should be aware, however, that this stamping is much more common on jewelry. If you’re collecting other gold items, you’ll likely have to go another route to discover the difference.
The National Gold and Silver Stamping Act was ratified in 1905 to prevent fraud with gold and silver jewelry. Since then, almost all gold jewelry has been stamped with a declaration of what type of material the piece contains and the quality of gold within it.
Typically, a stamp can be found on every piece of jewelry made after 1905. You may find a few here and there that don’t have this, but it’s rare. However, pieces made before 1905 won’t have the initial stamps. In this case, you should plan to make the discovery another way.
So, what do you look for on these pieces? Here are the most common markings you should be aware of.
- GP: This marking means that the piece is gold-plated. This is the easiest marking to identify.
- GEP: This marking means that the piece is gold electroplated. This is basically the same thing as gold plated, but it is done differently.
- RGP: This marking means that the piece has a rolled gold plate. Again, this is just a different way of doing a gold plate. This type is a heavier plate than the others.
- HGE or HGP: This marking means the piece has a heavy gold electroplate. This is still gold-plated, but the plating is typically significantly thicker than it would be on your average gold-plated piece.
The above markings indicate that the piece is gold-plated rather than pure gold. You will likely see a Karat symbol if the piece is pure gold. These symbols indicate how much gold is in a piece.
Identifying Pure Gold Through Karats
If you’re thinking to yourself, “I thought you said Karats were an indicator of pure gold,” you’d be right to be a bit confused. Let me explain.
In our world, few items are made of 100% pure gold. This isn’t feasible because gold doesn’t hold up long-term. Gold alone is an enormously soft and flexible metal. If a ring, for example, were made out of pure gold, it would mold itself around your finger with just a little use.
For this reason, nearly all of the gold jewelry pieces we have today are made of gold alloys. A gold alloy is a mix of pure gold with another metal. All of the gold we think of today – yellow gold, white gold, and rose gold – are types of alloys.
Yellow gold is an alloy that comes about after pure gold is mixed with zinc and copper. Zinc and copper produce the yellow hue we most closely associate with pure gold. This is because pure gold also has a yellow hue to it.
White gold, another well-known type of alloy, is created by mixing pure gold with white metal. Typically palladium, manganese, or nickel are used for this. White gold is quite popular among those with more fair skin since it pairs well.
Rose gold, which has become quite popular in recent years, is created by combining pure gold with copper. This creates the perfect rosy hue.
So, the Karat indicates how much pure gold is in the piece. When examining a Karat stamp, you will notice a number and a K. The number is the amount of gold parts in the piece. 24K is the highest part-to-part ratio, indicating that the piece is almost pure gold. Here are some examples of how this breaks down.
- 14K: This gold is fourteen parts pure gold and ten parts another metal.
- 18K: This gold is eighteen parts pure gold and six parts another metal.
- 24K: This gold is twenty-four parts pure gold, meaning the piece is almost pure gold.
When examining your piece, you will see a Karat stamp if the piece is not gold-plated. It’s important to remember that even what is considered pure gold is still an alloy most of the time. This doesn’t mean it is less valuable, however.
2. Test Whether the Piece Is Magnetic
Magnets are quite the tests for everything, right? In truth, there are a lot of things that you can find out with magnets. Testing whether a piece is gold or gold-plated is just one example.
Magnets are a great way to test this, but you won’t always get accurate results. The idea is that a gold-plated piece will respond magnetically, but a pure gold piece will not. This is because pure gold doesn’t have magnetic properties.
The problem is what we were just discussing in the previous section. Most “pure gold” is gold alloys. This is common in both jewelry and other gold objects. However, it is more common in jewelry, as it is built to withstand time with excessive use.
Despite this, testing whether the piece is magnetic will still give you a probable picture of whether or not the piece is gold-plated. Gold-plated pieces will nearly always have a strong magnetic pull to them.
On the other hand, gold alloys may have a slight magnetic pull, particularly if the Karats are lower. Still, overall, they’ll display significantly less pull than their gold-plated counterparts.
You’ll need a strong magnet, which is designed specifically for testing jewelry.
Once you have your magnet, this test is really easy to perform. Simply bring your gold object close to the magnet and see whether or not it is pulled to the magnet. As we discussed, pure gold doesn’t have a magnetic pull. If the piece is pure gold, or at minimum, a higher content of gold, it won’t experience a magnetic pull.
On the other hand, if the piece is gold-plated, it will immediately draw to the magnet. This is because gold-plated items have a very small gold content. Most of the piece is another metal, nearly all of which are magnetic.
The magnet test is a quick and easy way to discover whether something is gold or gold plated, but, unfortunately, it isn’t excessively reliable. While gold-plated items will inevitably be drawn to the magnet, gold alloys may or may not be drawn to it. This will often leave you with underlying questions and no solid answer.
That said, let’s look at another way you can tell whether or not something is gold or gold plated.
3. Check the Color of the Piece
Pure gold has an intense yellow hue to it. As we discussed, this is why yellow gold alloys are most often thought of as pure gold. However, when an object is a gold alloy, it will not be as intense yellow.
Because most solid gold pieces are gold alloys, the coloration is typically different from pure gold. On the other hand, gold-plated pieces are nearly always coated in pure gold. This causes them to take on an intense yellow hue.
Of course, this takes a trained eye to discover, and it may take multiple examinations to tell the difference using color alone. For this reason, it’s better to use this method with some of the other signs we are discussing today.
The most challenging type of gold to work with is yellow gold. This is because the color is so close to pure gold and, thus, is quite close to the color of a gold-plated item. This test is much easier to perform when dealing with white gold or rose gold.
Nonetheless, you can expect a gold-plated item to have a significantly more intense coloration than solid yellow gold.
The easiest way to tell the difference through color is to have something to compare to. For this reason, I suggest having one piece that you are certain is gold plated on hand and one that you are certain is yellow gold. Perhaps these are pieces you bought from a jewelry store or had professionally tested.
From here, you can use these pieces through the comparison process. With time, you’ll easily identify whether something is solid gold or gold plated through color alone. Of course, it’s still best to check with other tests since this method isn’t reliable on its own.
4. Look for Signs That the Gold Plating Is Wearing Off
Gold-plated items don’t last forever, especially compared to solid gold items. Solid gold is built to be durable. In addition, even if the piece is a gold alloy, it is evenly distributed throughout. This means that the gold won’t begin rubbing off over time.
In contrast, with time, gold-plated items will always begin to lose the plating. Small signs of this are always noticeable when looking at the piece. The exception is if the piece is brand new or has minimal use. This is where understanding the color differentiations is useful.
The quickest pieces to lose their gold plating are rings. Because a ring is worn around the finger, it comes in contact with skin, sweat, dirt, and water. Gold platings will rapidly rub off on rings of all types. There are always noticeable signs of this. What should you look for?
As we discussed, gold plating will have an intense yellow hue. The underlying metals will not. Instead, you will notice a silver or copper color beginning to show through the yellow. It may be only in certain areas, or the piece may show a more even release of the gold plating.
In either case, you’ll notice that what was once an intense yellow hue now appears bland or discolored. Gold-plated items are also especially susceptible to scratches. This is another thing that you can look for when examining your gold piece.
If you notice that the gold plating seems to be wearing off, you can also use a metal detector to help determine whether or not it is solid gold. Solid gold will be picked up by metal detectors, whereas they typically ignore gold-plated pieces. This can further confirm a suspicion.
You can check out my How to Read a Metal Detector article for more information on how to use them.
5. Test the Piece With Acid
Acid tests are one of the most reliable ways to test whether a piece is pure gold or gold-plated. The downside to this test is that it often needs to be done by a professional. However, this test can be performed at home with some education and caution.
How does an acid test work?
Acid causes metals to change color. The color change varies based on the type of metal in the piece. When an acid test is performed, a small sample of the piece is removed and placed into an acid solution. This sample is typically minuscule and is rarely noticed as missing from the piece.
Once exposed to the acid, the sample may have a myriad of reactions depending on the base metal. For example, let’s look at what might happen when copper is exposed to acid.
In this situation, the acid will turn green and bubbly and have fumes that build up. This is because of the chemical reaction when copper comes in contact with acid. The response will be obvious with this metal and other similar metals.
Acid tests identify the material through the interaction. Pure gold produces no initial interaction. But as the Karats become lower, the reaction intensifies.
Here’s the way this test would work for determining whether a piece is gold-plated or solid gold.
When the piece is exposed to the acid, if it is solid gold, it will exhibit a mild reaction. How intense this reaction is depends on the Karats, but there is never a huge reaction like what we discussed with copper. Instead, the piece may change colors slightly, producing light smudges or darker marks. Again, this is dependent on the gold content.
When a piece is gold-plated, you get an entirely different reaction. In one area, the acid will not react at all. This is because gold-plated items typically have a plate made of pure gold, as we discussed. In another area, the reaction will be full and intense. This is because you are now dealing with an entirely different metal.
Materials That Acid Does Not Respond To
Unfortunately, there are other materials that acid will not produce a response to. These are materials that gold alloys are typically made from. So, while acid is a reliable indicator of whether a piece is solid gold or gold-plated, it can still get a bit confusing.
Let’s look at some of the materials that acid will not respond to.
- Stainless Steel
- Gold (12K and above)
All this means is that in most cases, gold-plated pieces will respond to the acid, but there may be situations where this doesn’t happen if the base metal is one of the ones in the list above. With this in mind, you should be aware that just because there is no reaction doesn’t mean that the piece is solid gold. This is exactly what this means in many cases, but there are multiple situations where this may not be the case.
You will commonly use a Nitric Acid Testing Kit to perform this test. For more information about how this test works and what you should be looking for, check out this article.
6. Perform a Scratch Test
A scratch test should be used as a last resort. This is because this test will always damage your piece. For this reason, scratch tests are known as destructive tests. Still, it is the most reliable way to know whether or not the object is solid gold.
Scratch tests are performed by cutting into the object and looking for a color change. The idea is that if a piece is gold-plated, you will see a change in color once you cut it into it. It will go from an intense yellow hue to silver, copper, or something similar.
Of course, this can also be observed by closely examining the piece in most cases. Still, a scratch test will assure you what the other tests won’t.
Conversely, you won’t see any color change if the piece is solid gold. This is true even when the piece is a gold alloy. This is, again, because the gold is mixed thoroughly with the other metal. There is no distinction. Gold plating, on the other hand, offers a clear distinction between gold and other metal.
To perform this test, you’ll simply cut into the material. You won’t need to go very deep. Gold plating rarely covers more than a few millimeters. You should be very careful when performing this test, or you may cause irreversible damage. In either case, however, the damage will be done to the piece.
Perform the scratch test on inconspicuous places on the object whenever possible. You will often have to have it professionally repaired after a scratch test, so it’s best to keep the damage hidden if possible.
Before you go, don’t forget to check out my other article “What Happens if You Find Gold on Public Land?” for even more information about everyone’s favorite shiny metal.
Telling the difference between an object that is gold and gold plated can present challenges initially. However, as you become familiar with the process, it gets significantly easier to identify.
There are multiple ways that you can tell whether something is gold or gold-plated. The most common ways to make the distinction are as follows.
- Initial Stamps
- Magnetism Test
- Color Test
- Signs of Wear
- Acid Test
- Scratch Test
When identifying the differences, it is recommended to go from the least destructive to the most destructive. This will ensure the object suffers as minimal damage as possible.