How to Identify Gold Rocks

Gold! It conjures visions of hard prospectors searching through valleys and streams for gleaming metal. The fact is finding gold is (usually) a lot harder than it looks. And there’s plenty of fake gold if you don’t know what to look for. So how do you determine if it’s real gold?

Testing Gold

Know how to spot the real thing. There’s a lot of fool’s gold out there that suckers newbies into thinking they’ve struck it rich. Watch out for pyrite and mica.

Test to see if it’s pyrite. The most prevalent of fool’s gold, pyrite is actually harder and more brittle than gold–but not remotely as heavy. Usually in the form of small cubes, when struck with a hammer it shatters.

Test to see if it’s mica. As soft as gold, mica naturally occurs in flakes or thin sheets that can be split or flaked off into individual sheets. It is much lighter than gold and snaps into pieces when scratched by a fingernail or a sharp object.

Test to see if it’s real gold. Gold is actually heavier than lead (19 times heavier) and sinks. It is malleable and can be hammered into thin sheets without shattering. Because of the way miners often used mercury and other chemicals to extract gold once the easy stuff was found, gold often can appear black in stream beds.

Sink or float? Gold’s weight makes it sink promptly to the bottom of the miner’s pan or sluice box. Mica floats, and pyrite moves easily about.


  • Because of the frequent use of mercury to help leach gold out from the rocks, it is not uncommon to find gold that is bonded with mercury in streams; it may appear black. Mercury is a known carcinogen, so handling of such gold should be done with caution.


  • Don't expect to get rich quick. Most easy-to-find gold was picked up long ago.
  • Today's miners usually have to dig and move a lot of dirt to find gold, but it's often said that as much as 80 percent still remains in the California mountains waiting to be found.

About the Author

Claudia Newcorn is the owner of marketing & communications agency Acorn Enterprises. She has been a freelance writer and editor for over 10 years. She writes for both businesses and individuals. Her articles appear in print and online newspapers and magazines. She is the author of an award-winning fantasy book, "Crossover".