Often have you heard that told:
Many a man his life hath sold
But my outside to behold:
Gilded tombs do worms enfold."
Not everything that looks valuable on the surface is actually valuable. A glimmering facade on a house (whether metaphorical or literal) conceals a rotting foundation. Makeup conceals age and illness. A bright smile hides a life of suffering and sorrow.
In short, appearances can be deceiving.
The most well-known example is fool's gold (iron pyrite). A bright shiny rock that looks like polished gold, but is in fact worthless. Indeed, true gold is a dull color, and may not look valuable at all to the ignorant.
Whenever a character is deceived by surface appearances into overestimating the value of something this trope is in play.
In works that wish to teach the Aesop that material wealth is not the true wealth we should seek for, it might be actual gold and jewels that "glitter" and deceive characters into choosing them over less obvious wealth such as love or honor. As such, this trope can often overlap with The Simple Gesture Wins.
Not to be confused with the Norman Lear television series.
- A little short story in the Ouran High School Host Club manga dealt with the host club trying to find the perfect soup that their principal had sampled when he was younger. Turns out it was a very common soup and that the one giving the soup to the principal would later be his wife.
- In Detective Conan, Conan and the Detective Boys get a treasure map from Dr. Agasa and go look for its treasure and get in serious trouble when a bunch of adult thieves set out to find it first. The treasure was... a picture and a a 20-something-years-old handwritten note by someone named Yusaku Kudo. The Detective Boys are disappointed, but Conan is ultimately fine - because Yusaku Kudo is his father, meaning that Yusaku made exactly the same treasure hunt when he was a child.
- In Fruits Basket, this trope is Ren Sohma's biggest punishment. The box belonging to her dead husband Akira... the same that she manipulated Rin over (leading her to get really badly punished by Akito, and then she tried to kill Akito over? It's empty.
- In Guardian Fairy Michel, this frequently serves as the Aesop to many episodes. The Black Hammer Gang hunts "treasures," as they assume all treasures are wealth-based. However, the "treasures" either end up being something they can't really spend, like seeds that can grow in any soil, or non-material things such as the love of family or the beauty of a city.
- In Spirited Away, No-Face lures the spirit world inhabitants into feeding him by giving them what looks like gold, but the gold is actually just dirt. Chihiro is the only one who rejects the gold even before it's revealed to be fake.
- The Atari Force comic book special story where Pakrat discovers crystals that he thinks are valuable that are made from Babe's shedding skin scales. At the end of the story, Pakrat finds out that after a while they turn to dust.
- The Smurfs comic book story "The Little Tree" has Timber and an elf named Vini search for a legendary golden tree that produces golden pinecones in order to help pay off Gargamel's debt before sundown or else he would threaten to burn the elf's sister, who was turned into a tree. Upon reaching the island where the tree is located, though, Timber and Vini discover that the pinecones are just ordinary ones reflecting sunlight and the tree that produced them is an ordinary tree. With some quick thinking, Timber gets Painter to bring a can of gold paint, then they dip the pinecones into them to make them appear golden, and later hand them off to Gargamel, who after bringing them to the bailiff to pay off the debt finds out that they are just painted pinecones.
- Subverted in Calvin and Hobbes: The Series: when Calvin fails to get the VideoNow he wanted, Hobbes tells him there's more to life than just handheld TV's. Calvin agrees - there are bathtub TV's now!
- The four get a hard lesson in this in The Keys Stand Alone: The Soft World when they raid a dungeon and come out with lots of treasure but most of it is fake or cursed. All in all, they make a measly 9,000 Swords for hours of tedious trudging around.
- The Castle of Cagliostro has a lost treasure, which counts as a partial example. The Roman ruins' enormous value is purely cultural, but the international attention they'll receive from academics and tourists will be useful for Clarisse and her country's economy. Lupin, however, wistfully notes that it's too big for his pocket.
- In Kung Fu Panda the Dragon Scroll, purported to be the ultimate source of wisdom and power for the Dragon Warrior is completely blank. Somewhat subverted in that the scroll also reflects the face of the person looking at it back onto them, hinting at the fact that the chosen Dragon Warrior already has all the wisdom and power they need within them, and they needn't rely on mystical scrolls.
- Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: The Holy Grail that grants its user immortality is kept inside a room with cups of all shapes and sizes. The old Knight Templar who guards it explains that the final test to prove oneself worthy is to pick out the right one. Donovan assumes that the Holy Grail must be a magnificent treasure fit for a king, as Jesus was the Son of God. The gold gem-encrusted cup he chooses to drink from turns out to be the wrong one, and he decays into a pile of ashes within seconds. Indiana then chooses the real one, which turns out to be an ordinary-looking cup that the son of a carpenter would use.
Templar: He chose... poorly.
- They're downplayed examples, but pretty much all the movies in the series involve Indy on the hunt for some fabulous exotic treasure only for him to end up coming to some more important realisation about himself or those around him.
- In the remake of Inherit the Wind, this is invoked verbatim by Henry Drummond while having an after-work chat with Brady.
- In the live-action Popeye movie, Bluto has been after Poopdeck Pappy's mysterious treasure, which becomes the focal point of the finale. While Bluto and Popeye fight, Pappy retrieves his chest, and shows Swee'pea (And the audience) that it's filled with keepsakes, trinkets, and a few cans of spinach. Clearly worthless to Bluto, but the spinach gives Popeye the strength to turn the fight around.
- Richie Rich: The villain, Van Dough, hears about the Rich family vault and assumes it's where the Rich family keeps all their wealth. He engineers the kidnapping of Richie Rich's parents in an attempt to get access to it, only to find out that it's full of keepsakes. When he has a meltdown demanding where all the money is, Mr. Rich tells him it's in banks, real estate, stocks, and presumably other revenue generating forms, in a tone that suggests he thinks Van Dough is an idiot for thinking their money be anywhere else. This is actually a joke about the original franchise, where that WAS the case.
- Casper: The plot is kicked off by Carrigan learning that Whipstaff Manor supposedly contains a priceless treasure. There is in fact a safe hidden away in the lab Casper's father built beneath the mansion and Carrigan eventually dies and becomes a ghost just to get through the unopenable door. Turns out the "treasure" is actually...a baseball signed by Casper's favorite player. It obviously had enormous sentimental value to Casper's father, enough for him to keep it in the safe, but has no monetary value.
- Don Quixote, written about eight years after The Merchant of Venice, refers to this trope as "a saying" (Ch. 33), providing another indication that it's really even older. The saying, in various phrasings, dates back to at least the 12th century; the earliest reference to it in English is by Chaucer.
- Inverted in The Lord of the Rings, in a poem about Aragorn, where the normal phrasing is reversed. The original saying means "Just because it glitters doesn't mean it's gold," and this example means "Just because it doesn't glitter doesn't mean it's not gold".
All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost.
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring.
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.
- The motto of the Alchemists Guild inverts the saying with "OMNIS QVI CORVSCAT EST OR" (All That Glitters Is Gold). Of course, the chief discovery of the guildmembers in fact being "how to turn gold into less gold."
- The throne of Ankh-Morpork is utterly rotten wood beneath a layer of gold foil, which symbolizes the old kings quite nicely.
- Innocent Smith in Manalive argues that, since the only reason gold is valuable is that it glitters, anything that glitters really is gold, or good as gold.
- Inverted in the Sherlock Holmes short story The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual. The lost treasure Brunton seeks is just a few broken bits of metal and colored stones actually the lost crown of Charles I, priceless for its historical value alone.
- Played with in the Albert Campion detective novel The Tiger in the Smoke, which revolves around a ruthless criminal hunting for a mysterious treasure supposedly hidden by the family of the commanding officer of his wartime unit and bequeathed to his wife. Only the criminal and his allies actually believe that the 'treasure' is something of significant monetary value, however; pretty much everyone else suspects it's probably not worth as much as the criminal believes it is but nevertheless try to stop him acquiring it because, well, it's not his, he's murdered several people to try and get it and it's the principle of the thing. It turns out to be a beautiful but near-worthless ivory replica of a Madonna-and-child valuable to the wife only for the sentimental connection to her dead husband.
- Played with in The Executioner novel Ambush on Blood River. Mack Bolan is asked by a deposed African leader to recover a safebox stolen in a robbery during the Congo Crisis. Bolan is not interested until it's explained that as well as a stash of diamonds, the safebox also contained a list of people working for American intelligence (naturally the Dirty Communists are also racing to seize this prize). Bolan recovers the safebox, only to find the list has crumbled to dust long ago; the former ruler was after the diamonds all along.
- Subverted in Fate/strange fake. Lord El-Melloi II, after submitting a sweepstakes card for a game he bought, wins a cheap piece of merch - a knife said to be used and signed by Jack the Ripper. However, before he can receive it, his Cloud Cuckoolander student Flat Escardos, who at this point is raring to head off to America to participate in the Snowfield Holy Grail War and is only held back by the fact he has no special relic to summon a Servant, gets his hands on the box. El-Melloi II, recognizing it as some prize he won, gives it to him without a second thought. The big problems start when the ecstatic Flat's massive power and the Snowfield Grail War's quirks totally ignore the apparent need for a genuine artifact and bring forth a Berserker-class Jack the Ripper.
- In the short story "The Necklace", Mathilde asks to borrow what she thinks is an expensive diamond necklace from her wealthy friend. She loses it, buys a replacement necklace on a loan to prevent her friend from finding out, and spends ten years doing hard labor to pay off its cost of thirty-six thousand francs plus interest. When she finally tells her friend what happened, her friend tells her that the necklace she thought was an expensive diamond one was actually a cheap imitation that was worth only five hundred francs at most.
- A season two episode of Eureka uses this trope as its title and features a bacteria-eating virus which starts turning things to gold (and then to rust).
- An episode of seaQuest DSV has the resident conartist loading the boat up with glowing blue crystals. That turn out to be bioluminescent squid poop.
- Sarah initially feels this way about taking over Beth's life in Orphan Black - Beth has a stable job, a nice apartment, a hot boyfriend, and $75,000 in an account her boyfriend doesn't know about to steal. Then it turns out Beth is a cop on suspension for shooting a civilian, and is in deep with Clone Club. The $75,000 belongs to another clone.
- One One Life to Live, after discovering his wife's duplicity (she'd pretended to be pregnant to get him to marry her), Todd compared to a piece of artwork in their living room, picking it up, describing its beauty, then smashing it to the floor, saying, "But when you get right down to it, it's nothing but cheap crap."
- Little House on the Prairie had an episode where Laura and a friend think that they've found gold but when they bring their haul into town, they find out it's only pyrite (fool's gold).
- Charles finds a small vase among a peddler's wares and thinks it's a priceless antique. As he doesn't have the money to buy it (this was the episode where a goat ate the payroll), he borrows the money from Rizzo, at the "simple" interest rate of 100% per day. Not only does the vase not turn out to be valuable, but Charles winds up broke having to pay back Rizzo for several days of "interest".
- An early episode had Radar prospecting for gold in the mountains near camp, as Korea is one of the largest gold-producing nations. He doesn't find any but Hawkeye and Trapper use the story about there being gold nearby to convince Frank to give up a transfer (after Frank and Margaret both asked to be transferred because of Hawkeye and Trapper's practical jokes, Henry put the two captains on double duty until they get replacements).
- A song by Dan Seals talks about a man who loved a beautiful rodeo woman, but she doesn't even want to have anything to do with him or their daughter. This song's name? Everything That Glitters (Is Not Gold).
- Ogden Nash's "Look What You Did, Christopher!" is a pessimistic look at contemporary American life. One line goes, "All that glitters is sold as gold."
- Our Miss Brooks: In the episode Indian Burial Ground, Miss Brooks, Mr. Boynton and Walter Denton confuse broken toys buried in Mr. Conklin's vacant lot with valuable Indian artifacts.
- The name of this trope comes from The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare (though, in the original play, the line was "all that glisters is not gold"). When Bassanio figures out the riddle, he gains Portia's hand in marriage, having learned that he should appreciate her for her mind rather than her beauty. (Of course, she was very wealthy, so in winning the hand he got the gold too.)
- In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof the pivotal confrontation between Big Daddy and his son Brick invokes this trope. Brick tells his father that he isn't impressed with his vast wealth and all he wanted was a father not a boss. Big Daddy retorts that what was there that he didn't buy him when he was growing up? Brick then screams that you can't buy love and proceeds to destroy a vast collection of art that Big Daddy had purchased in an auction to show that none of the material stuff really mattered to him, he only wanted his father's love. Big Daddy says that he does love him he just wanted what was best for him because he grew up poor and his own father left behind nothing of value that would be worth remembering other than an old suitcase with a Military uniform in it. Brick disagrees saying that his grandfather left behind love for Big Daddy, moved to tears Big Daddy agrees and promises to try better as a father for Brick.
- Used by the heroes in Sequential Art; most of the other party members have been drugged to sheer stupidity, so Art gets them to follow him by offering a "prize". Which is just a ruse.
- Spoofed in this Swords strip.
Troll: You may take one sword from my treasured collection! But be warned - many carry terrible curses!(Adventurer picks up a wooden sword)Adventurer: A simple test! Only a humble sword such as this will be safe!Troll: *snort* It wasn't a test, you dumb idiot.(The Adventurer's whole arm is now a tree)Adventurer: Oh... Is it too late to pick again?
- The Adventures of Teddy Ruxpin: In "Escape from the Treacherous Mountain", the group finds the treasure they were looking for: six crystals, and a huge hoard of gold and jewels. Unfortunately, the Gutangs sound the alarm before they can take all of the treasure, so they can only take the crystals, and one small jewel. Meanwhile, Tweeg and L.B. come in to take the rest of it. However, it turns out that the treasure was just an illusion (other than the crystals, which were real), which disappears as soon as it leaves the confines of the city, leaving Tweeg and L.B. exhausted and penniless for their efforts.
- SpongeBob SquarePants uses a variation of the trope in one episode. SpongeBob replacing his old spatula with a high-tech one, then crawls back to his old one after his new one declares it's too good for him. SpongeBob even says "all that glitters is not gold". And the episode title is... (drumroll) "All That Glitters".
- Another episode starts with SpongeBob pick up what Mr. Krabs thinks is a penny, and the rest of the episode focuses on Krabs' obsession with getting the penny from SpongeBob. It turns out the "penny" is actually a wad of chewed gum SpongeBob had wanted for his collection. Subverted when the "gum" turns out to be a crumpled-up $500 bill.
- The Smurfs episode "All That Glitters Isn't Smurf", where Gargamel kidnaps Smurfs in order to make gold, and Papa Smurf lures the evil wizard to a mountain of fake gold coins made from Smurfette's hair in order to rescue his little Smurfs.
- The trope name is dropped in an episode of Tiger Sharks. There, it is played very literally — what looks like a hoard of golden spheres is actually dangerous toxic waste causing Rapid Aging in anyone touching it. Both the heroes and one of the major villains have a problem because of it... the other villain learned his lesson many years ago.
- A Looney Tunes cartoon, "Speedy Ghost to Town" has Daffy on the pursuit of Speedy Gonzales and his friend, Miguel, after Speedy reveals to Miguel what Daffy believes to be gold, as well as a map to a mine with plenty more. After several failed attempts to get the map, he finally holds up Speedy and Miguel at their mine and demands their stash. They proceed to give him their cart, only for Daffy to realize the mine wasn't filled with gold, but something Speedy and Miguel would find more valuable: cheese.
- This proves to be Anne Marias undoing in Total Drama: Revenge of the Island. After finding what she believes is a huge diamond, she jumps into the catapult with Brick and declares that shes quitting the competition. However, Chris informs her the diamond is actually cubic zirconium, and shes launched away before she can get off the catapult.
- Can also occur in the Real Life — several early European exploration expeditions (most notably Martin Frobisher's) returned to their homelands with literally tons of iron pyrite, believing that they'd found gold. Even nowadays a common name for pyrite is "Fool's Gold".
- Charlie Sheen told a story about running into Donald Trump shortly after he'd gotten married, and Trump gave him the diamond cufflinks off his jacket as an impromptu wedding gift. Sheen later had them appraised and found out they were cubic zirconia instead of real diamonds.