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Pyrite vs. Gold: 11 Key Differences (Never Get Wrong Again)

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Pyrite and gold can appear similar to the untrained eye but are quite different minerals. Pyrite has earned the nickname “fool’s gold” over the centuries because people often mistake it for real gold.

In fact, studies show that most first-time gold prospectors mistakenly identify pyrite as real gold. However, there are several key differences that can help you distinguish pyrite from gold. Learning to tell the two apart can save you from disappointment and wasted time. 

This article will examine 11 major differences between pyrite and real gold in detail so you can avoid errors and accurately identify them. 

Differences Between Pyrite and Gold
Differences Between Pyrite and Gold

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Key Differences Between Pyrite and Gold

Whether you’re a prospector, collector, or simply find an interesting rock, read on to become an expert at discerning pyrite from au natural gold!

Difference #1: Color

One of the most obvious visual differences between pyrite and gold is their coloration. Pyrite has a distinct brassy or yellowish color that gold does not naturally have. 

While gold can appear with subtle yellowish hues when found in nature, pyrite has a much more pronounced golden color. Additionally, the color of natural pyrite has an overall metallic sheen. 

Gold may display subtle banding colors within the mineral, but does not have the same glittery golden appearance of pyrite. So if you come across a golden nugget with clearly yellowish tones, it’s almost certainly pyrite rather than pure gold.

Difference #2: Brightness/Luster.

Beyond color, the brightness and luster of pyrite and gold differ in important ways. Pyrite has an extremely brilliant, metallic, and glittery appearance. 

Natural gold, on the other hand, is bright but displays more of a glowing warmth rather than an eye-catching glitteriness.

Additionally, while gold can appear in many forms like nuggets or flakes, a common trait across all varieties is a subdued sheen rather than a flashy luster. 

Meanwhile, pyrite’s refractive properties cause light to strongly bounce off its surface, giving it an exceptionally dazzling gleam in comparison. 

So if your specimen has an almost overpowering glittery sheen similar to a mirror or foil wrapping paper, it’s surely fool’s gold rather than the real thing.

Difference #3: Hardness

An important physical property that distinguishes pyrite from gold is hardness. Hardness here refers to a mineral’s capacity to resist abrasion, scratching, bending, and general wear and tear. 

Minerals are scientifically rated on the Mohs Hardness Scale, which is a 1-10 rating of a mineral’s relative hardness.

With a Mohs rating of just 2.5 to 3, gold is remarkably soft compared to pyrite, rated from 6 to 6.5. 

Pyrite’s hardness approximates that of common quartz or granite. This means pyrite resists scratching and abrasion far better than gold. 

Take a look at the specimen in question – if its surface appears free from chips, scratches, and wear, it’s likely harder pyrite rather than soft, delicate gold.

You can test hardness yourself by attempting to scrape the specimen’s surface with a knife or nail. If it’s easily scratched or chipped, you have gold. If impervious to scratching, it’s durable pyrite.

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Difference #4: Weight

Another telltale sign you’ve got pyrite instead of paydirt gold lies in heft and weight. Although gold has high mass and density, pyrite contains sulfur which tips the scales even further. 

This means pyrite feels extraordinarily heavy given its size, while gold is heavyweight but still less dense.

Do a quick weight comparison test of a nugget-sized specimen in your palm – does it feel as weighty as a rock or more so? 

If unusually weighty for its size, you likely have ultradense pyrite instead of gold. Conversely, gold will still feel remarkably heavy, but not to an abnormal gravity-defying degree like Iron Pyrite. Always trust your built-in weight scale when prospecting!

Difference #5: Streak Test

A handy identification method to discern pyrite from gold involves using a specimen’s streak for clues. Streak testing examines the color of the powdery residue left behind when a mineral is scraped across a rough ceramic plate.

When streak tested, pyrite leaves behind a greenish-black or brown powdery streak. Gold, on the other hand, has a metallic golden-yellow streak color that matches the gold underneath. 

This test works well for field identification. If you don’t have a ceramic streak plate on hand, even scraping across rough concrete can generate usable results.

TIP: Minerals’ streak is one of the most critical tests for mineral identification, especially while working with native metals and sulfide minerals. Find out the complete guide in the article below:
DIY Guide: Testing Mineral’s Streak (Explained by Expert)

Difference #6: Structure

Pyrite and gold both form in a variety of structures like nuggets, flakes, or grains, but pyrite tends to form in clearly defined geometric cubes that are rare with gold. 

Examining a specimen’s structure under magnification can help clue you into whether it’s angular, artificial-looking pyrite or the more freeform, softened shapes of gold nuggets and grains.

This trait occurs because pyrite’s molecular structure aligns during formation to create geometric shapes within rocks or mineral deposits underground. 

Meanwhile, gold forms random amalgamations since it is often melted and reformed rather than growing within a meaningful crystal pattern like pyrite and other minerals. 

If your specimen has unnaturally squared-off or hexagonal formations, pyrite crystals are indicated.

Difference #7: Associative Minerals

The surrounding minerals that crystallize within the parent ore deposit offer helpful clues about whether you’ve struck real gold or fool’s gold. 

Gold commonly occurs admixed or alloyed with other metals like copper, silver, or nickel. The presence of these associated precious metals can signal you’ve found gold.

However, pyrite forms alongside quartz, hematite, calcite, and a variety of metal sulfides. It also occurs within coal beds or other non-valuable rock formations not associated with valuable ore genesis. 

If your specimen is surrounded with distinctly non-precious minerals rather than gold and silver, you likely have pyrite. Use visual identification tools to examine minerals nearby or within specimens to make the call.

TIP: You need to know something about how gold deposits occur to understand which rocks to look for when prospecting. Find out more in the article below:
5 Rocks You Need To Look For When Gold Prospecting (+ Why)

Difference #8: Conductivity

A final determination method involves testing conductivity to verify whether the specimen is pyrite or conductive gold. 

Though appearing metallic like gold, pyrite is a non-metal with semiconductive properties rather than being a highly conductive element. 

Gold is renowned for being the world’s most electrically conductive metal, even more so than copper.

You can test this yourself with a multimeter, battery, and thin copper wires. Using alligator clips, connect wires from a battery to either end of the nugget or mineral specimen in question. 

Then read the conductivity measurement on your multimeter. If the specimen falls short of being highly conductive, you have non-conductive pyrite rather than gold. So grab those jumper cables and measure conductivity for a definitive identification!

Difference #9: Chemical Properties

An important distinction between pyrite and gold lies in their chemical reactivity. As a pure metal, gold is chemically inert and does not corrode or oxidize. 

Pyrite, on the other hand, contains reactive iron sulfide that can undergo chemical reactions altering its appearance over time.

A simple way to test this is by applying nitric acid to a small area on the specimen.

While gold remains unaffected, pyrite specimens will react forming dark, greenish-black stains where the acid contacts the surface. This occurs because the nitric acid interacts with iron in pyrite, but not with unreactive noble gold.

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Difference #10: Tarnish

Unlike pyrite, gold resists tarnishing and maintains its brilliance indefinitely when stored properly. Meanwhile, pyrite has a tendency to take on surface discoloration in the form of dark streaks or film. 

This happens because trace mineral impurities within natural pyrite specimens can oxidize over time.

Check older specimens carefully under bright light – even slight tarnish indicates pyrite, while gold rejects oxidation and clouding of its rich, buttery yellow metallic color.  

Remember, only iron pyrite stains greenish-black with acid and also readily tarnishes. Real gold locks in luster for the long haul!

Difference #11: Magnetism

Gold displays no magnetic attractions whatsoever being a pure metal. Pyrite, on the other hand, sometimes contains enough trace iron to respond weakly to handheld magnets or even common iron nails.

Test your specimen’s magnetic properties by slowly sweeping a small rare earth magnet over the surface. 

If the magnet or iron nail clings, pulls or deflects as contact is made, then iron-bearing pyrite is present rather than non-magnetic gold. It’s a quick identification tool that requires only a basic refrigerator magnet to perform.

TIP: Some minerals and rocks have pretty unique magnetic properties. Find out more about magnetic rocks and minerals in the article below:
List of Common Magnetic Rocks & Minerals (with Explanation)

Extracting Gold from Pyrite

While pyrite itself does not contain extractable gold, pyrite formations are often associated with viable gold deposits. So while “fool’s gold” won’t make you rich, it may indicate the presence of gold-bearing ore!

If you suspect you have actual gold mixed in with your pyrite, there are a couple of options for separating and extracting the gold. Here are two common DIY methods:

Acid Leaching Method

A basic acid leaching technique can dissolve the pyrite and release any enveloped gold particles within. All you need is dilute nitric acid or hydrochloric acid, an acid-safe container, and some patience. 

Drop acid-safe gold pellets into the acid solution as it dissolves the pyrite ore over 24-48 hours. The gold pellets will collect freed gold without dissolving.

After leeching pyrite into the solution, wait several days until the sediment settles, then decant off the nitric acid solution carefully. 

Wash any gold traces in the sediment, and melt it down in a crucible with flux to reveal the recovered gold!

Smelting Method

The second method involves smelting crushed pyrite ore first to separate iron sulfides before the introduction of other gold-collecting chemicals. 

Professional smelting furnaces reach over 1,650C and use chemical agents like flux, borax silica, or soda ash to draw out precious metals.

While home smelting is difficult, it’s not impossible on a small scale! Consider constructing a simple cinder block furnace capable of reaching red-hot temperatures to smelt gold-bearing pyrite rock safely. With some patience and metallurgy know-how, smelting can produce extracted gold!

So while pyrite itself is not valuable, with some persistence and chemistry skills, prospectors can sometimes extract accompanying gold from iron pyrite sources through leaching or smelting techniques. Just make sure to take the necessary safety precautions!

TIP: The gold sluice box is a time-saving alternative to the traditional panning for gold. Check out simple and useful tips on how to use it in the article below:
Find More Gold: Tips On How To Use Sluice Box Properly

Frequently asked questions on Pyrite vs. Gold

To learn more about difference between pyrite and gold, take a look at some of the most-asked FAQs for this state:

Is pyrite heavier than gold?

Despite pyrite’s nickname “fool’s gold”, pyrite is actually heavier and denser than genuine gold! Pyrite has a higher specific gravity measuring 4.8-5.0, while gold weighs in at 19.3 g/cm3. 

Even though gold has a higher mass, pyrite’s relative density exceeds that of gold due to the presence of sulfur in its molecular structure. So by volume, a piece of pyrite weighs more than the same volume of gold. 

Is pyrite more valuable than gold?

Despite pyrite’s ability to fool gold prospectors, when it comes to real value, pyrite trails far behind gold. As a common sulfide mineral, pyrite has very little economic value with most commercial operations mining it for sulfur. 

Meanwhile, gold’s unparalleled value is universally recognized all over the world for its many monetary and industrial uses.

At today’s market rates, gold is trading for over $2,052 per ounce while mundane iron pyrite fetches only a few dollars per pound at best as an amateur collector’s novelty. 

Assays determine ore-grade gold can be hundreds of times more valuable than run-of-the-mill pyrite shale. So while pyrite may look like a jackpot to the untrained eye, keep hunting the real royal payday payout still waiting in streams and rocks!

Is fools gold worth anything?

While pyrite, known as “fool’s gold”, tricks and disappoints many an excited prospector, it does have some minor value for practical and novelty purposes. Within the mineral trade, pyrite enjoys niche demand among collectors, often selling for $2-$4 per pound.

Its maximal iron sulfide content of around 46% allows some commercial exploitation for sulfuric acid production. Additionally, pyrite’s striking golden color makes tourist-friendly jewelry and ornamental stones to sell in gift shops and at rock shows worldwide. 

So while nowhere near as valuable as gold itself, the irony of “fool’s gold” is that it does possess many golden money-making opportunities! At the end of the day though, it’s still just common pyrite.

This covers some of the minor ways that pyrite/fool’s gold retains a bit of value – for collectors, sulfur production, and novelty jewelry/ornaments. But it emphasizes that pyrite is still basically worthless compared to real gold and it has a much higher mineral value.

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After examining all these important differences, you should now have confidence in discerning valuable gold from commonplace pyrite. 

Just remember these key identifiers: color, luster, hardness, weight, streak test, structure analysis, associated minerals, and conductivity measurements. Armed with this knowledge and scientific testing techniques, even the slickest pyrite won’t fool you again.

So venture forth boldly on your expeditions, whether prospecting commercial gold deposits or investigating that intriguing rock formation on your property. 

May all your cherished golden discoveries bring you good fortune rather than bitter disappointment! Just keep your wits about you and utilize the methods outlined here, and you’ll be an expert at pinpointing real gold from misleading “fool’s gold”.

TIP: Pyrite is commonly found in most U.S. states. It is the most abundant sulfide mineral. Check out the complete guide in the article below:
Where to Find Pyrite: Best Environments & Locations in USA