I’ve always loved the look of gold leaf, but never really knew much about the technique and history until my love affair with Napoleon III began…not that I’m into some morbid fascination with the skeletal remains of Napoleon III….you (hopefully) know what I mean. I just love the amazing furniture and décor that Napoleon III inspired.
Ok, back to gold leaf and gilding. Let start with some history and head off to ancient Egypt. The Egyptians used this amazing metal because of its enduring ability on the items they covered with it, like tombs, coffins, sarcophagi etc. This stunning metal was the only substance at the time that had the peculiarity of not being oxidized, and therefore became a symbol of immortality, and the divine. Naturally, the ancient Egyptian pharohs thought they must surround themselves with this timeless metal, enroute to the afterlife. I guess it made sense at the time, don’t you think?
The ancient Greeks also used it in the construction of Chryselephantine statues, using gold leaf to cover amour, clothing and even represent hair. An amazing example of this was seen on the enormous statue of Zeus at Olympia, which was a staggering 43 feet tall, and was considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Like so many things from the ancient world, it was destroyed and the gold was used elsewhere. But I digress…
Throughout history, gilding was used in an enormous variety of ways, and today we still see it used in gilding furniture, book binding, architecture, interior decor and art. During the time of Napoloeon III, it was used for wood framed mirrors, art, as well as a huge array of amazing furniture. This technique was practiced by furniture manufacturers like Atelier Leonie, Atelier Huber and Atelier Mariotti, to name a few.
In the 18thcentury, a thin layer of gold leaf was laid flat on the item of furniture and with a large “palette” brush, was applied carefully to the bronze, with the metal clinging to the decorative feature due to static electricity. It was then adhered with an egg wash to ensure the adhesion (egg wash is obviously not just for pies!) Then the gold leaf on the item of furniture was polished. The French gilding technique polished this amazing metal using an agate stone, and voila, the technique was complete.
Then in the 19thcentury, Galavanic gilding was developed. This process was mastered by goldsmith Christolfe, who’s best known for gilding the giant, and well known statue of Madonna and Child that crowned Our Lady of the Guard in Marseille, under the watchful eyes of Napoleon III.
There have been many techniques of gilding developed throughout history, some with disastrous effects on the artisan using it, but the finished product was always breathtaking! I think even the relatives of the artisans who had mercury poisoning from gilding in retrospect thought so too.
Since gold is a very ductile metal, it lent itself to being hammered into very thin layers without breaking the wire of the metal. Unlike the period of ancient Egypt, were the gold leaf was about the thickness of our tinfoil, it is now wafer thin, and is even used in the culinary world as an edible delight to accompany many Michelin star dishes.
Today, vacuum gilding is the newest technique that has taken the gold coating industry by storm. It is compared to electroplating, which creates a more resistant coating and is virtually unalterable, withstanding the effects of time, that were often caused by corrosion and friction.
Gilding has been with us throughout history and never ceases to enchant us. It is the favorite of the wealthy but can be enjoyed by all of us, taking our breath away in its huge variety of uses, from King Tuts tomb to Russian palaces. Finding Napoleon III furniture brings me that much closer to the fascination I have with this stunning metal. Too bad I can’t wear these pieces of furniture, adorned with gold, as jewelry…maybe more visits to the gym are in order.
Thanks for now!