Pyrite vs Gold – how to spot the difference

Fool’s gold, AKA, “Pyrite” has “fooled” many prospectors and gold miners! It’s tricky because its a similar color as real gold and it glitters in the sun. You’ve probably heard the expression, “all those glitters are not gold”, they’re referring to pyrite and other minerals that catch the sun and sparkle in the gold pan. The first difference between pyrite and gold is the fact that pyrite isn’t even a metal, it’s a mineral.

PYRITE — “a very common brass-yellow mineral, iron disulfide, FeS2, with a metallic luster”

GOLD — “a precious yellow metallic element, highly malleable and ductile, and not subject to oxidation or corrosion. Symbol: Au”

So pyrite is iron disulfide and a mineral or a naturally occurring, inorganic substance. In pyrite’s case it has a very crystalline structure. Gold is extremely malleable and would never have sharp edges if it’s spent any time tumbling in a river! Let’s look at both pyrite and gold side-by-side:

As you can clearly see, gold has a much deeper yellow color than pyrite. In addition, you can see sharp edges to the pyrite, in fact, it’s not difficult to see the crystalline structure. Gold on the other hand usually has rounded edges and softer lines, since its soft and easily manipulated by the forces from tumbling with the rocks, gravel and sand in the river or creek. If gold has been recently released from the lode rock, it can be “stringy”. The gold nugget on the left in the comparison above is an example of potted or “stringy” gold, but it still looks nothing like pyrite!

To the novice prospector or gold miner, pyrite looks quite similar to gold, but don’t be “fooled”. It won’t take you long in the field to be able to tell the difference. You don’t want to spend a day collecting worthless minerals instead of what you’re after, GOLD! One other distinct difference between pyrite and gold is the specific density difference. Gold is very heavy! Pyrite is not. The specific density of pyrite is 5 and the specific density of gold is over 19! That means that the same volume of gold weighs 3.8 times that of pyrite. All methods of gold mining use this fact to separate gold from lighter materials, including pyrite. So, if you can’t figure it out, put your pyrite in your gold wheel and if it makes it up to the catch bin, maybe you really found some gold!

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