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What is the Difference Between Fool’s Gold and Real Gold?

Catherine Tramell
Catherine Tramell

Last updated 28. april 2022

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Gold is a unique metal. It’s got excellent aesthetical and functional values that very few metals can truly accomplish. It’s beautiful, durable, and, most importantly, rare. Very few precious metals are as sturdy and attractive as gold.

Gold is highly desirable across regions and cultures. And because gold is not available in unlimited or abundant supply, gold prices have been steadily increasing over the years, putting it in a price category that isn’t within reach of most people.

real gold vs fools gold

People save for months, if not years, just to procure a few grams of gold for investment or gifting purposes.

Some people, however, are besotted by just the looks of gold and seek alternatives that replicate gold. Gold-plated or gold-covered jewelry exists and has a market for that exact reason.

But there’s a more natural form of replica gold, which could grab your fancy if you’re not a fan of gold-plated items. Meet “fool’s gold!”

In this article, we’ll discuss in-depth:

  • Fool’s gold in brief
  • Differences between it and pure gold
  • The desirability quotient of fool’s gold, and more.

If you’ve heard about fool’s gold but don’t know much about it, this piece shall be the only guide you need.

Fool’s Gold: A Brief Overview

Fool’s gold is “pyrite”, a yellowish mineral with a metallic luster. It contains iron sulfide. Pyrite is called “fool’s gold” because it looks like the yellow metal from the outside, and a lot of people, as a result, have mistaken it for actual gold.

The first known instance of pyrite crystals making a real gold lover fall prey was in 1578 when an English explorer and privateer, Sir Martin Frobisher, returned with 1,350 tons of pyrite, believing it was gold ore.

Pyrite comes in different shapes and sizes. They usually have less disorganized structures or flatter sides. They can be found as a cube, pyritohedron, octahedron, and icosahedron. The natural form could look like it’s been touched by a human. If the natural shape is not fancy enough, it could also be cut to take up other silhouettes.

The color could be different too, ranging from a paler grey to brighter golden or brassy yellow. The hue the mineral assumes is influenced mainly by the various elements constituting it. Regardless of the color, pyrite is pretty much always opaque or marginally translucent.

Pyrite May Contain Gold

Gold and pyrite take form in almost identical conditions. It’s, therefore, not impossible for places where you find pyrite crystals to have gold deposits as well. Finding real gold, however, could be far more challenging — which is why gold miners exist.

Because pyrites could naturally form close to real gold, they may contain gold, besides other minerals and metals. However, the amount of gold likely to be found in pyrite will be minuscule. In Carlin-type gold deposits, arsenian pyrite could have a maximum of 0.37% gold.

Also, not all pieces of fool’s gold have gold deposits. The majority do not. The ore that Sir Frobisher showcased to Queen Elizabeth may not have comprised gold, but it certainly had a few other glittery minerals and metals.

The occasional modicum of gold found in pyrite usually lurks in the tiny imperfections found in the crystal structure of pyrite. The more the deformations, the greater is the likelihood of gold trapped in there.

The naked human eye cannot discern the gold in pyrite. You’ll need some special apparatus or method, such as atom probe tomography, to detect the gold.

Extracting the Gold

Atom probe tomography also helps extract the gold. It employs electrical pulses to rind atoms from a pyrite sample and examines them one at a time. The electricity used trounces the gold threads.

Other methods to segregate the gold include “pressure oxidizing” and “selective leaching”. The former is a bit energy-intensive and, therefore, not eco-friendly. On the other hand, the leaching method removes the gold nano threads using a fluid that dissolves the gold without causing any damage to the pyrite.

Real Gold and Fool’s Gold: The Major Differences

There are just so many discrepancies between gold and pyrite. People who confuse the latter for gold are justifiably called “fools”.

Hue and Shine

For starters, pyrite is a mineral, like a diamond, and not a metal, let alone a precious metal. It’s got a sheen and shine, more akin to a diamond than gold. It’s, however, not “crystalline”.

Under light exposure, pyrite glitters. Based on the color of the light and its intensity, it could exhibit different tones. When there’s no light, fool’s gold has no shine whatsoever. Gold may not dazzle in a dimly lit room, but it would have a minor yet noticeable shine and luster.

Durability

Gold is malleable or can give in to a bit of a force. Pyrite is a bit more rigid than gold and doesn’t warp. On the Mohs hardness scale, gold is 2.5, which is lower hardness than pyrite’s significantly higher 6 to 6.5 range.

Unlike gold, the mineral pyrite shatters instead of bending under duress or slight pressure. It won’t flatten like gold. Therefore, you need to be extra-cautious when trying to cut the material as it could shatter and crumble if dealt with roughly and not scratch like any other hard object.

When impaled with a thin, sharp object, pyrite would crumble or show signs of disintegration at the particular spot. Gold will develop a dent instead. It is imperative pyrite is not subjected to physical tests by inexperienced people or inexperienced prospectors but by individuals who know a thing or two about carving or dealing with mineral stones.  

When subjected to a streak test or upon rubbing gold against a surface harder than gold, such as white porcelain, gold will leave behind its small traces on the other material. Pyrite will also do that, but the remnant is likely to be a greenish-black streak. Pyrite is highly unlikely to leave behind a yellow spot.

Form and Texture

As mentioned earlier, pyrite is usually squarish or has relatively sharp edges. It doesn’t have the rounded edges and smooth texture of gold. In other words, pyrites are sharper and angular than gold in their natural states. Also, fool’s gold smells like sulfur. Gold, on the other hand, smells like nothing.

Pyrite is Desirable

Pyrite

Pyrite may not be anywhere close to valuable as gold, but it’s not trash either. The mineral’s brilliant metallic luster and overall attractive appearance make it a solid and cheap alternative to real gold jewelry, explaining the different forms of pyrite jewelry on the market.

The mineral’s ability to help with industrial applications is also being continually researched. Some countries, in fact, import several thousand tons of pyrite every year.

Potential Uses

Fool’s gold could have industrial qualities as well. While not yet employed in semiconductor technologies and renewable energy applications, fool’s gold shows promise.

The status quo is pyrite underperforms when it comes to converting light into electricity. It’s not clear why pyrite consistently underachieves. With more research and more knowledge, new developments are possible.

New research states the trouble point with pyrite is the obscure hydrogen atoms lurking within. For the non-scientists among us, hydrogen is a gaseous substance that can covertly permeate matter and stay shrouded, causing its host trouble.

When inside a physical element, hydrogen can be hard to detect. When embedded into a material at the correct spot and in the right amount, hydrogen could decrease the effect of problematic structural defects. However, excessive amounts could alter any host material’s electrical properties, mainly when it’s not detected or meant to be.

Pyrite Imitations Exist

And because pyrites are not anywhere close to being completely worthless, pirated pyrites exist. The fakes, however, are not as common because pyrite is not as rare or doesn’t command the premium value the yellow color metal manages. The replicas are made using copper particles glued or epoxied to lapis lazuli or composite turquoise.

Conclusion

Unlike gold-plated or gold-infused items, fool’s gold is not as hard to differentiate from real gold, thanks to its unique physical traits. The crystalline structure, for one, is a clear giveaway the material isn’t gold. Its color could bear a close resemblance to the yellow metal, but that’s still no excuse to get “fooled”.

Instead of calling it fool’s gold, it would have been fitting if pyrite was referred to as “poor man’s gold” since it’s an excellent option for folks who cannot afford gold jewelry yet. And the fact that it’s natural and a stone adds to the appeal.

Pyrite jewelry is a solid alternative option for a lot of gold buyers. For investment reasons, however, pyrite is nowhere close to being a veritable choice. It won’t be so anytime soon, even if massive strides are made to learn about the material and its varied applications.