Pyrite has a track record of tricking people into thinking they’ve found a fortune. At a glance, it looks like gold, and some people have spent a fortune acquiring it, thinking it is gold, only to realize they got the fool’s version.
Pyrite is called fool’s gold because it looks like gold but is almost worthless. Pyrite nuggets cost about $20 per pound (½ kg), while gold is currently worth $22,697 per pound (½ kg). People with untrained eyes pay thousands of dollars for pyrite, which is more available but less valuable.
In this article, I’ll discuss pyrite gold in detail, explain why it is called fool’s gold, and list features that differentiate pyrite from gold.
How Pyrite Earned the Name Fool’s Gold
It’s easy to consider one a fool for falling prey to fraudsters selling pyrite as gold. However, pyrite has been a source of disappointment and disillusionment throughout history, especially for explorers who used minerals to convince their governments to fund their expeditions.
Ancient Egyptians were the first to start mining and using gold in 5,000 BCE. Soon, there were tales of gold being found in streams all over the world. After all, gold was one of the quickest ways to get rich.
Gold was soon equated to power and wealth, so governments across the globe started using explorers to find it.
It is, therefore, not surprising that European explorers like Jacques Cartier sent tonnes of pyrite and quartz to France from Canada, thinking it was gold.
In 1576, Martin Frobisher took a trip to the Arctic coast of Canada in search of gold after hearing rumors that the Spanish conquistadors and the French had successfully found gold.
This exploration turned out to be one of the biggest scams in history because, during his first voyage, he sent 200 tons (200,000 kg) to England. After a favorable valuation of the first trip’s gold, he received investment for a larger shipment, sending 1,350 tons (1.35 million kilograms) of “gold” during the second voyage.
This time, the ore was smelted down, revealing that it was a nearly useless stone. So, the voyages were nothing more than a fool’s errand.
Gold was mostly responsible for the industrial and economic revolutions in many nations. Rumors of gold discovery lured immigrants and encouraged permanent settlement as people sought better opportunities.
So, when Martin Frobisher’s so-called gold turned out to be pyrite, it wasn’t just the miners and explorers who were fooled. The people who journeyed to colonies rumored to have gold were also duped. The Queen of England was also fooled. Some scientists have even pointed out that “fool’s gold” was initially used in reference to how easily the queen was fooled, but there was plenty of blame to go around.
However, it is important to point out that at the time, it was not known that gold could be found within pyrite because they tend to form in the same place. They also didn’t have the techniques available today in identifying pyrite and gold.
Some people still get fooled, but not as much as ancient explorers who didn’t know any better.
Here is a video showing some of the instances when people were fooled into believing pyrite is real gold.
What Test Is Most Reliable in Identifying Pyrite and Gold?
Since pyrite and gold sometimes appear to be the same color, several tests have been developed over the years to help distinguish between the two materials. The hammer test is the easiest, fastest, and most accessible if you quickly want to establish if you have gold or pyrite.
The most reliable test used in identifying pyrite and gold is malleability. Gold is more malleable than pyrite and can be transformed into any shape when flattened with a hammer. Pyrite is much harder (rated 6 on the Mohs scale against gold’s 3). When hit with a hammer, pyrite turns to dust.
The other tests usually carried out include the streak test. This test determines the color of fool’s gold and real gold in powder form. When you scrape gold on unglazed porcelain (streak plate), it will leave a gold streak, while pyrite will leave a greenish-black streak.
Why Pyrite Is More Available Than Gold
One of the reasons scammers use fool’s gold to dupe people is its availability. Unlike gold, which is quite rare, pyrite is easier to find and abundant across the globe. Peru and Southern Europe have some of the largest pyrite mines in the world.
Pyrite is a metallic mineral made of one part iron and two parts sulfur (FeS2 ). It usually forms when organic matter decomposes in dissolved sulfate, usually found in sedimentary rocks. Iron sulfide is one of the most plentiful of all sulfide minerals.
The presence of decomposing organic matter and dissolved sulfate in mining localities means pyrite is more present.
Gold, on the other hand, is a rare element that doesn’t form the way pyrite crystals do. Gold deposits occur in the veins of fractured rock. Heated fluids within the earth’s crust move and pick gold deposits, concentrating them in various locations in the earth’s crust.
Some scientists have pointed to space as the origin of gold. The theory suggests that distant supernovas exploded and the materials were flung into space, with some landing on earth.
Another theory suggests that natural geological forces that form gold ores occur with other ores and within the veins of rocks.
Sometimes, the hot fluids in the earth’s crust carry pyrite and deposit it in the same rocks as gold. This is why the presence of pyrite is sometimes seen as a sign that gold may also be present in the same ground. However, pyrite deposits are usually more abundant than gold.
The Uses of Pyrite
Pyrite is often considered worthless, and it is when compared to gold. However, despite its low value, pyrite has several uses. In recent years, its use has been declining, with more people getting pyrite as a collectible.
Here are some of the uses of pyrite:
- It’s used to produce iron sulfate, which is used in nutritional supplements, water treatment, lawn conditioners, and other chemicals.
- Production of sulfuric acid, which is used in making fertilizer. Sulfuric acid is also used in the lab.
- Various elements, including copper and gold, can be found inside pyrite.
- Pyrite in marcasite form can be used for making costume jewelry. Its glittering appearance, greenish-black streaks, and affordable price make pyrite popular with rock collectors. Unfortunately, pyrite tarnishes easily.
Ancient civilizations also used pyrite to start fires. Its cubic shape and sharp lines made it easier for them to create friction by rubbing one pyrite rock against another. The ‘Pyr” in pyrite means fire in Greek, probably because of its ability to easily start a fire.
However, the greatest use that gold prospectors have ever had for pyrite is its ability to tell them where to find metals, such as gold and other minerals. Gold doesn’t just lie around in the open, waiting to be discovered. It is dense, so it is usually hidden underneath rocks and silt.
One of the telltale signs that cause prospectors to pause and dig deeper is the presence of pyrite.
How To Find Pyrite in Nature
Before you go in search of pyrite, you first need to understand why you’re going for this exploration. Do you want to start a pyrite collection, or do you hope to sell it, despite its low value?
If you intend to sell, first establish the market for it. Fortunately, there are pyrite buyers across the US and around the world. They’re also easy to find online, and you may discover the most popular buyers from other collectors.
Most of those who buy pyrite often hope to find the gold hidden in the rock. Some even suggest that the more deformed the pyrite, the larger the concentration of gold in it.
In nature, pyrite tends to take on a cubic shape with fine lines. However, when it is loaded with other minerals, such as gold, it is not unusual for it to be “deformed.”
Pyrite can easily be found in igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic rocks. Examples include limestone, shale, and sandstone. Sometimes, just like gold, they form through hydrothermal mineral deposits.
You can identify pyrite using;
- Its cube shape.
- It’s shiny appearance.
- The sulfur smell it produces when you rub it on something.
- The greenish-black streak when you run the rock on a rough surface.
- The brass-like yellowish color.
You won’t always find large cubes of pyrite. Sometimes, they’re so small it needs a keen eye to spot them.
Many people throughout history have been fooled into believing pyrite is gold, including the Queen of England. However, we can’t fault them because, at the time, they didn’t know any better, and the only way they could tell they didn’t have actual gold was by smelting it.
The discovery that some voyages were a waste of time and resources left some explorers with egg on their faces.