All that glitters isn’t gold: The internet is awash with ‘gold’ jewellery but the sample we bought was just 0.6% pure
The pendant in my hand looks like gold, feels cold and heavy like gold and was described as ‘gold’ when I bought it. But is it real?
Today I’ve taken this Radley London necklace, which I bought from Amazon for £29.99, to the London Assay Office to test how much gold is actually in it.
The experts here suspect it may be one of thousands of pieces of imitation gold jewellery currently on sale online in the UK — a market estimated to be worth in excess of £1 million.
Purity: Reporter Rosie took this Radley London necklace, bought from Amazon for £29.99, to the London Assay Office to test how much gold is actually in it
Under the Hallmarking Act 1973, it is illegal to describe anything that isn’t officially gold as the real thing.
This includes misleading online shoppers by not making explicitly clear in a product title or advert if an item is made from a cheaper metal which has been coloured or plated.
But there has been an explosion in cheap jewellery falsely marketed as ‘gold’ since the start of the pandemic, with a study for the British Hallmarking Council finding a 17-fold rise in suspicious online marketplace listings between 2019 and 2021.
Such products are usually made from cheap base metals coated with an incredibly thin layer of gold — as little as 0.25 microns (a millionth of a millimetre) thick.
‘If you were to buy a piece of cheap costume jewellery you know is only gold-plated or gold-coloured and you’re happy with that then that’s fine,’ says the London Assay Office’s customer services manager Adam Phillips.
‘The issue is when shoppers pay more for something as they perceive it is a higher-value piece because of the way it is described.’
The law says shops must include the word ‘plated’ in a product title with the same prominence as the word ‘gold’ — but many websites don’t. It means it’s easy for people doing their Christmas shopping for loved ones online to be drawn in by adverts showing gold jewellery for prices of around £30 to £150.
But there’s a strong chance it is actually worth no more than a few pounds.
Real deal? Rosie watches Adam prepare the Radley locket for testing in a London Assay X-ray machine
Ruth Mary Chipperfield, who resizes and remodels jewellery, is increasingly finding people have been mis-sold items. ‘One client didn’t know whether her ring was nine or 18 carat gold. In fact, it was 80 per cent nickel and therefore dangerous to wear.’ she says.
The necklace I bought is called a ‘Ladies Gold Floral Etched Locket’ and there is nothing in the product’s title or description to suggest it isn’t gold.
But when I scroll down the Amazon page I see the ‘material type’ is described as ‘brass’. So, what is it really made of? It’s time to put it to the test.
Only x-ray vision can spot real gold
Adam takes me through a maze of security gates and back corridors within the imposing Goldsmiths’ Hall in London, where gold experts have been testing the quality and purity of gold for more than 700 years.
The Assay Office laboratory is decidedly 21st-century, however, with workbenches full of high-tech machinery.
Here, experts use machines called X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectrometers to send X-rays through the surface of jewellery. Each metal element reflects the X-ray energy back at unique frequencies and the machine then reads these.
First, Adam puts a real gold ring in the machine. The graph on the attached computer screen shows two clear peaks in the ‘gold’ range — it contains 91.6 per cent gold, which means it is 22ct, the finest quality used in jewellery.
Experts are warning that customers are being conned into buying jewellery containing ‘fake’ gemstones worth a fraction of the value of real ones
There are also small peaks for other metals, including some silver and a little bit of copper and zinc.
‘Gold is too soft to be used in its purest form so even 22 ct gold is only around nine-tenths gold. It is an alloy, with small amounts of other metals to give it strength and colour,’ Adam explains.
Next is the moment of truth for my necklace. Adam places the pendant under the X-ray beam and we wait around 20 seconds.
The peak for copper shoots up immediately but there’s nothing more than a small blip for gold.
‘There’s basically no gold in here,’ Adam exclaims.
The machine shows the outside of the pendant is made almost entirely of copper and zinc, the gold content is 1.2 per cent. A quick test of the chain shows it’s not much better, it contains 2.6 per cent gold.
Manufacturers who want to save money sometimes put cheaper metals in parts which aren’t as visible, Adam says.
He tests the inside of the locket and his hunch is proved correct: it’s just 0.6 per cent gold in there.
‘To sell something as “gold” by law it must be at least 9ct gold, which means the metal alloy contains 37.5 per cent pure gold. This contains just a trace,’ he says.
Gold has a set minimum price which fluctuates according to the markets every day but 24 ct gold (the purest kind) is usually around £42 per gram.
Adam calculates that if my necklace were 18ct, the gold alone would be worth around £350.
That doesn’t include the cost of designing or manufacturing the piece, or the retail mark-up so the maker can have a profit.
It’s likely the metal deeper inside has even less gold content than we found on the surface.
Even if it were the same quality throughout, it would contain a maximum of 0.16 g of pure gold — around £6.72 worth. But in reality, it will be worth a lot less.
Amazon did not comment on our findings but it is understood to be looking into the issue. Radley London did not respond to requests for comment.
As gold is a commodity, it has a set minimum price which fluctuates according to the markets every day but 24 ct gold (the purest kind) is usually around £42 per gram
Check the hallmark
The Assay Office assesses the quality of jewellery and other items made from precious metals such as palladium and silver in order to hallmark them.
Nothing gold of a quality lower than 9ct receives a hallmark.
But hallmarks can be faked — and I suspect this might be the case with the next piece of jewellery I’ve brought for testing. It appeared in a Google Shopping advert when I searched for ‘gold rings’.
The ring was called ‘Song Gold’ on the website of jewellery brand Ana Luisa, and displays a picture clearly showing a hallmark-style stamp. Adam uses a magnifying glass and instantly says its hallmark is ‘nonsense’.
It’s just the letter ‘A’ and a tiny clear stone — there are none of the official marks, numbers or shields necessary.
A quick test under the machine reveals it contains 22.6 per cent gold, far below the minimum standard allowed to be sold as ‘gold’.
Although the website’s headline for the ring only mentions ‘gold’, the description immediately below says it is: ‘Plated: 14k gold’.
As Ana Luisa is a U.S. company with a ‘.com’ address, British hallmarking rules don’t apply. Buying from a British supplier with a ‘.co.uk’ website would have offered more protection as these websites must comply with UK standards and laws, Adam explains.
Ana Luisa did not respond to requests for a comment.
So, how else can consumers avoid being ripped off?
The key thing to remember is you can’t tell if something is real gold by looking at it, says Adam.
Look out for words such as ‘gold coloured’, ‘plated’, ‘gold filled’ (or ‘GF’), ‘vermeil’ or mentions of any other metals, as these are all clues it is plated cheaper metal.
UK websites should show you the hallmark or include details of it in the description.
Real hallmarks will contain a series of letters and numbers within shields and carry a mark to show which of the UK’s four Assay Offices assessed the item: a leopard for London, rose for Sheffield, anchor for Birmingham or a castle for Edinburgh.
Watch out for fakes
It’ not just cheap jewellery makers that are ripping off customers.
The trade of fake luxury watches has become such a problem that last month eBay launched a free post-sale verification service for watches sold for more than £2,000 on the auction site.
Bogus: The trade of fake luxury watches has become such a problem that last month eBay launched a post-sale verification service for watches sold for more than £2,000 on the site
Whenever a high-value watch is sold, the seller now sends it via eBay’s Authenticity Guarantee programme to be checked by Stoll & Co watchmakers.
Luxury watch resale site Relleb says customers should look out for the words ‘custom’ or ‘aftermarket’ included in the description of the watch parts on eBay listings. These indicate the parts are replicas added later.
Another red flag is if sellers have a ‘no returns’ policy — genuine sellers should let you return the watch if you have any concerns.
eBay’s director of luxury goods, Kirsty Keoghan, says: ‘Our number one goal is to bring more trust to our marketplace for our entire eBay community which is why we are investing in authenticity guarantee for watches.’