Difference Between Pyrite and Real Gold

Pyrite, or what's commonly known as "fool's gold," has tricked countless prospectors into thinking they've found valuable gold when they really didn't. Ever since the early days of the 49s during the California Gold Rush, this metal has broken dreams for thousands of hopeful prospectors.

Gold Nugget

Image of a large gold nugget

To the untrained eye, pyrite looks quite similar to gold in the sense that it's a similar yellowish color, but there are some notable differences between the two. Whether you're a recreational of professional prospector, it's important to know and understand the differences between pyrite and real gold. Only then can you rest assured knowing exactly how much valuable gold you're going home with after a long day of panning and prospecting.

If you're serious about panning or prospecting for gold, you'll need to educate yourself on the differences between real gold and pyrite. The fact is that real gold can be worth over $1,700 per ounce, while you'll be lucky to get a buck for that much pyrite. The bottom line is that you have to be aware of what minerals in your pan are actually gold and which ones aren't. Trying to sell fool's gold as real gold can get you into a lot of trouble, but thankully it's fairly easy to tell the difference. Just use some of the following methods listed below:

Streak Test

Streak tests are one of the most effective methods used to check and see if a mineral is actually gold. If you don't know what these are, let me explain -- streak tests are performed by rubbing a mineral nugget on an unweathered surface known as a streak plate. Once the mineral is rubbed, it leaves behind a colored trail of mineral powder that may give away clues as to what type of mineral it is.

Pyrite typically leaves behind a black-dark green powder, while gold leaves behind a bright yellow powder. You can find streak plates to test for gold at dozens of mineral and hobby shops throughout the country, as well as online shops.

Image of a Pyrite (AKA Fool's Gold) Nugget

Image of a Pyrite (AKA Fool's Gold) Nugget

Color

After you've gained some experience with gold panning and prospecting, you should easily be able to tell the difference between pyrite and real gold simply by looking at its color. Even individuals without any past experience will likely see a noticeable difference between the two minerals when they're placed side-by-side.

Pyrite has a darker yellow color to it that's similar to brass, while gold has a vibrant yellow color that's highly reflective to the surrounding light. Holding a piece of pyrite under the light will reveal a bright yellow color that's stronger than the dull yellow color of pyrite. Until you're able to easily identify gold, you should keep a piece of pyrite around in your pocket to compare your finds with.

Shape

The shape of pyrite nuggets is something that's quite unique and not found with traditional gold. Nearly all pieces of pyrite are formed into the shape of crystals, some of which may have nearly half a dozen pylons coming off the base. Of course this may be hard to see in smaller pieces of pyrite, as the crystals will be small and hidden as well. Gold, on the other hand, is never formed as crystals, but instead it's formed as nuggets and small flakes with little-to-no symmetry.

Weight

You probably know by now that gold is one of the heavier naturally-occurring metals found. After all, the entire principle of panning for gold is to wash away the lighter minerals and allow the heavier ones, such as gold, to sink to the bottom. Well, pyrite weighs much less than gold, and small flakes of it usually wash away when placed under the water. Large nuggets may still be left behind, but you can identify these by looking for the crystal-like shape and structure.