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Reputable jewelers will let you know exactly what you are buying, but when it comes to choosing an antique, buying jewelry at a flea market or receiving a family heirloom or gift, how can you tell if a bracelet is solid gold or just gold-plated? Several methods will let you know, but you need to choose an appropriate one: If you don't yet own the bracelet, you have to make the assessment using visual clues, unless you don't mind being unceremoniously kicked out of the jewelry store. If you're having visions of test tubes, lab coats and chemicals, think again. Although you can use a chemical gold-testing kit if all else fails, your initial investigation should be more "Antiques Roadshow" than alchemy.
Examine the color of the bracelet in a well-lit area, looking for any differences in the color tone over the surface of the metal. A solid gold bracelet will have an even color throughout; some gold-plated bracelets will reveal variations in tone.
Look for hallmarks or makers' marks on the bracelet, which are symbols, numbers, letters or whole words stamped into the surface of the metal. They are usually in a hidden spot, such as the underside of a cuff-style bracelet or on the clasp of a chain-style bracelet.
Examine any marks you find under a magnifying glass. If you see the words "gold plated," "gold electroplate" or "electro-plaqué d'or" or the letters "GEP," you have your answer -- the bracelet is gold-plated. If you see "GF" or "1/20 GF," this indicates that the bracelet is classified as "gold filled." This means the bracelet has a layer of gold over a base metal, but the layer is considerably thicker than that of gold-plated metal.
Look for a number from 585 to 999 stamped on the bracelet. This number indicates the fineness of the gold, and the presence of any such number in that range tells you the bracelet is not gold-plated. If you want to calculate the percentage of gold content in the bracelet, divide the number by 10. The number 999 stamped on the bracelet means the bracelet contains 99.9 percent gold -- that is, it is pure 24-carat gold. If someone gave you a bracelet stamped with 999 as a gift, you can only assume that they really like you a lot! A number of 750, for example, means that the bracelet is 75 percent gold and 25 percent other metals.
Look for other symbols stamped on the bracelet. If you see an eagle's head, a diamond shape with equal-length sides, or a conjoined boar's and eagle's head, the bracelet is probably French gold (and not gold-plated). A crown and the letters "c" or "ct" indicate gold from Britain; a thistle instead of the crown means it is Scottish gold.
Scratch the surface of a hidden part with a metal skewer, if you are willing to take the risk. Examine the scratch under a magnifying glass. If the surface metal and inner metal are clearly different colors, the bracelet is gold-plated. Although you have to damage the bracelet to do this, it gives you a definite answer.
Test the bracelet with a magnet. If the magnet clings to the bracelet, it is probably gold-plated. Gold is not magnetic.
Buy a gold-testing kit and follow the instructions carefully, handling the chemicals with extreme caution.
Make a habit of bringing a magnifying glass with you to examine the hallmarks and makers' marks when shopping for antique jewelry. Even if you don't have a clue what the marks mean, just the act of inspecting them will make the merchant take you seriously.
When you wear the bracelet, look for signs of discoloration on your skin, which is a good indication of gold-plated jewelry. Solid gold jewelry will not discolor your skin, because it is chemically inert.