Precious Metals

What Is Fool’s Gold?

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Many of you have probably heard the expression fool’s gold, but don’t know the meaning of the term. It’s why here we’ll explain how the term fool’s gold came to be used concerning real gold and talk about the difference between real and fool’s gold. If you’re looking to invest in gold, then you need to know the difference here. Find out all the details today.

What is the Definition of Fool’s Gold?

Fool’s gold is a term used for the mineral pyrite, which initially looks like real gold. The mineral pyrite is an iron sulfide with the chemical formula FeS2, and it is the most abundant sulfide mineral. Pyrite has a metallic luster and a pale brass-yellow hue that resembles real gold.

Back in the day, prospectors mistakenly thought that pyrite crystals were gold, which led to much disappointment for many.

How Do Pyrite and Gold Differ?

Pyrite and gold may look the same at first glance, but these two are different on many levels. Gold is a metal with golden-yellow color mainly found in its raw, pure state. It is not often found in nature, and due to its scarcity, shine, appearance, and properties, gold has been used for jewelry, coins, and other items of value. Gold has also become the base for the Gold Standard, a monetary system where the value of a currency is backed by gold.

On the other hand, pyrite is an iron sulfide mineral with a brass-yellow color and is a very commonly found mineral. Pyrite is basically worthless when compared to gold, but inexperienced people can easily mistake it for the good stuff. Also, sometimes gold and pyrite are found together, and people can get confused by the resemblance of the two.

Telling Gold and Pyrite Apart

Experienced mineralogists and gold dealers can very quickly tell gold and pyrite apart, but the rest can tell these two apart by performing conclusive tests.

If you are interested in learning the difference between real and fool’s gold firsthand, you should obtain a gold nugget and a piece of pyrite and do some of the tests below.

Please note that several of these tests are destructive and can damage and tarnish the surface of the gold item, so proceed with caution and stay away from invasive tests if possible.

Non-invasive tests methods don’t damage the gold and the pyrite and are very simple to perform:

  • Shape – pyrite has an angular shape with sharp edges and corners, resembling a cube, octahedron, or dodecahedron (pyritohedron). Gold has a softer, more rounded appearance, with polished edges, so it differs from pyrite. Still, it is possible to have crystalline gold formations that resemble pyrite, so you should look further and not rely only on the shape test.
  • Color – gold, and pyrite may look the same at first, but you will note the difference when you place them next to each other. Pyrite has a specific brass-like color that is less shiny. Gold has a distinct gold color with a yellow sheen, and if alloyed with silver, which is how it is often found in nature, it has a white-gold color that dramatically differs from the darker pyrite color.
  • Striations – pyrite has fine parallel lines on its surface called striations, and gold never has these. These can be very fine, and you may need to use a magnifying tool to check these better, but pyrite will have these as a part of its structure, and a gold nugget can have parallel marks left from the mining equipment.
  • Patina – patina or tarnish is the surface layer of corrosion that occurs in some minerals and metals, and it differs in color from the base mineral/metal. It is a protective layer that protects the base material from the elements. Pyrite, an iron mineral, has a specific tarnish; gold is resistant to surface oxidation and does not form a patina. Instead, gold has a distinct bright look which is why it is used for jewelry and other similar applications.
  • Specific Gravity – specific gravity is the ratio of a material’s density (the mass in a unit of volume) compared to the density of a reference material. Gemologists often use water to compare and identify minerals and gemstones. Gold and pyrite have very different densities, with gold being much heavier than pyrite. Gold has a specific gravity of 19.1, and pyrite has a specific gravity of 5. We need to note that an alloy of gold and another material can be less dense than pure gold but will almost always weigh more than pyrite.

Invasive tests use tools and equipment that alter the look of the test piece and can damage the surface and structure of the gold and pyrite test pieces. These are the most common tests done to tell gold and pyrite apart:

  • Streak Test – in the streak test, the gold and pyrite test pieces are scratched against a fine white porcelain surface. The color of the powder that is created on the porcelain surface is the actual color of the material, unlike its apparent color. When pyrite is scratched on white porcelain, it leaves a blackish-green streak, while gold leaves a distinct yellow-gold streak.
  • Hardness Test – hardness is tested on the Mohs scale, a 10-level scale where the materials that are higher on the Mohs scale scratch the materials that are lower on this scale. Gold has a Mohs hardness of about 2.5, while pyrite has a hardness of about 6 to 6.5. It means that pyrite will leave scratch marks on gold, while gold cannot scratch the pyrite surface. Copper is used to test the gold and pyrite in this test, as copper has a Mohs hardness of 3, meaning it will scratch the gold but not the pyrite.
  • Sectility – gold is sectile and can be cut into smaller pieces by a sharp knife, while pyrite is not. Try cutting the test piece with a sharp knife; if it cuts easily, it is probably gold, and if the knife does not cut it, it is most likely pyrite.
  • Ductility – ductility is the ability of a metal to be bent without breaking, and gold is very soft and ductile, easily bending in the required shape without breaking. Pyrite has excellent resistance to bending, and it will shatter instead of bend.

History of the Term Fool’s Gold

Fool’s gold is linked to Queen Elizabeth and the famous pirate Martin Frobisher. The discovery of the New World brought a feverish need to look for gold and other precious gems. Queen Elizabeth drafted the known pirate in the Royal Navy, setting him on a mission in 1576 to explore the Northern Passage to China.

He led his mission to Baffin Island in the Arctic Circle, where the Inuit people captured him. Frobisher stole some ore samples and escaped to England, where he presented what he thought was gold to the Queen. While the Queen’s experts gave the verdict that the ore was worthless fool’s gold, Frobisher, driven by the country’s hunger for gold, was given more ships and men to establish a mining operation on Baffin Island.

Frobisher brought back thousands of tons of the unknown ore, and the closer examination proved that these were worthless, containing no gold but pyrite. Since then, the term fool’s gold went into use, describing something greatly desired, flashy, and shiny but with no real value. The term gained more popularity during the gold rushes in the USA, where prospectors dreamt of making it big, only to discover pyrite instead of gold.

To Wrap Up

Now that you know the difference between fools and real gold, you know that the valuable investment is real gold. You can do this by investing in physical gold or setting up a Gold IRA. We have much more knowledge on this on our blog, along with suggested gold dealers and gold IRA providers.

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MF Metal Team

At MF Metal, we research and analyze retirement investment options for individuals who want to control and protect their financial future. We strongly focus on precious metals and gold IRA accounts.