How can I tell if my prospecting finds are gold? April 30 2013

One of the first times we went panning for gold, we thought we’d hit the jackpot. Every pan we pulled from the water had multiple pieces of a shiny, golden substance that we believed to be tiny gold nuggets. Panning was a lot of fun that day until we got home and realized our “treasure” wasn’t gold at all.

Pyrite, Mica and Gold

Several different minerals can be confused with gold, although pyrite and mica are the most common culprits. Pyrite, also known as Fool’s Gold, is a golden, shiny mineral that is beautiful in its own right, though not valuable. While gold is typically smooth or irregularly shaped, pyrite is comprised of multiple cubes or crystals bonded together. Mica, another gold imposter, is commonly found in sheets or large flakes. Mica flakes are golden, shiny and easy to confuse with real gold flakes.

As you hunt for gold, learning to differentiate these three minerals (gold, pyrite and mica) will save you from the disappointment that comes when you realize your gold nugget isn’t actually gold. Here are questions to help you better identify your prospecting finds.  

Does it change in the shade?

Gold looks like gold in any light while other minerals may lose their color or luster if taken out of direct sunlight. Look at your sample in the sunlight. What does it look like? Now shade the sample and examine it again. If it loses its golden color or changes appearance, it probably isn’t gold.

Does it float?

Gold doesn’t float. If your specimen floats to the top of your gold pan when panning, it is probably a different mineral, maybe mica.

Does it sparkle?

Gold shines, but it isn’t glittery or sparkly. Look at the specimen in the sunlight and move it around. If it is bright and shiny it might be gold, but if it sparkles like glitter, it probably isn’t.

Does it sink quickly?

Gold is heavy and even the smallest flakes will quickly sink when placed in water. A clean vial of water can be a simple and effective tool for identifying minerals. Gold sinks, even in dirt, so if your find was visible on the bottom of a stream bed, odds are it isn’t gold.

If you have some lead handy you can compare how quickly the unknown mineral falls to the bottom of a vial of water compared with lead. Gold is heavier than lead and should drop more quickly while pyrite and mica are lighter and will drop to the bottom at a slower rate. You can also place your unknown substance at the bottom of a vial of water or your gold pan and slowly swirl it around. Since gold is heavy it won’t move easily.

Does it break?

You can use a pair of tweezers for this simple gold test. Try bending the unknown substance using a pair of tweezers. If it breaks, it isn’t gold. Gold is malleable and will bend while other minerals will break into smaller pieces. You can also use a pin to pierce the substance. Gold will dent while other minerals break apart. 

Another test you can try is pounding the mystery mineral on a hard surface with a hammer. Gold will flatten while other minerals break apart. This test can ruin the aesthetic appeal and value of your sample, so use this method with caution.

And finally, does It write?

Mica is a soft mineral. One easy test for identifying mica is to rub it on a hard surface. (I like to use the side of my gold pan). If the unknown mineral leaves a mark, it isn’t gold.

One of the first lessons any gold prospector learns is how to identify their finds. By asking yourself these questions each time you find possible treasure, you can discover the answer to that all important question, “Is it gold?”