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Ormolu, also called ground gold, is a coating put on an object to imitate the look of gold. Historically, this refers to a coating on bronze or brass items that is only achieved by a dangerous process known as mercury gilding. In modern usage, ormolu is used for any gilded object, though true pieces are rare.
In the early 18th century, Baroque and Rococo design styles achieved popularity among the royal and noble classes of Europe, notably in France and England. Rococo design in particular relies on highly-detailed ornamentation, occasionally leading detractors to refer to it as baroque gone insane. Unlike early design forms, where ornamentation was seen as an accessory to architecture, Rococo turned the process around, having architecture conform to whimsical, asymmetrical, and highly decorated design. One of the cornerstones of the movement was adoration for extremely detailed gold or gilded decorations.
In France, the rarity of gold lead and the popularity of Rococo lead to the invention of gold hybrids, notably by mixing gold with mercury paste. The name, of the gilding comes from the French words or molu, meaning mashed gold. To compensate for the lack of easily available gold sources, ormolu became extremely popular throughout Europe.
The process used to create ormolu involved an extremely dangerous method. To mercury gild, or fire guild, an object, the gold-mercury mix was applied to a brass or bronze mount, and then heated until the mercury vaporized. When cooled, the gilding would leave only the gold behind, firmly affixed to the mount. Unfortunately, the inhalation of mercury fumes is incredibly toxic, leading to the deaths of most ormolu crafters by the age of 40.
Jacques Caffieri was one of the best known French designers to use the process. Already renowned as a bronze sculptor, Caffieri adopted the new style to unbelievable success. Much of his work was crafted for Louis XV and the royal family. One of his best known ormolu pieces is a toilet built for the king’s Versailles bedchamber. In 1740, Caffieri’s wife obtained a royal permit to gild and cast bronze in the same workshop, which expanded their capabilities.
Throughout France and much of Europe, ormolu was used on furniture and sculptures. As Rococo styles gave way to the simplistic Neoclassical form, the popularity fell sharply. By 1830, due to trend changes and the danger of the process, the poisonous methods of creating gilt fell out of fashion. Gilding waxed and waned in popularity throughout the next two centuries, but other, safer methods were created to achieve the desirable gold coating.
Today, true ormolu is rare and prized by collectors. Museums worldwide feature authentic pieces in displays of 17th-18th style and design Although it is certainly pretty to look at when well preserved, it is difficult to escape the shadow of deaths caused by the mercury firing, and the ignorance that allowed the process to exist for over a century.
Frequently Asked Questions
What exactly is ormolu and how is it used?
Ormolu is a type of decoration made from brass that is gilded with a fine layer of gold, creating a luxurious finish. It was traditionally used in the 18th and 19th centuries to adorn furniture, clocks, chandeliers, and other decorative arts. The process involves coating the brass with a mercury amalgam containing gold, which is then heated to evaporate the mercury, leaving behind a gold veneer. Ormolu is prized for its ability to mimic solid gold at a fraction of the cost, adding opulence to various objects.
Is ormolu still produced today, and if so, how has the process changed?
Modern production of ormolu has shifted away from the original mercury-gilding process due to the toxic nature of mercury. Contemporary methods use electroplating to apply gold to brass, which is safer and more environmentally friendly. This process involves using an electric current to deposit gold onto the brass surface. While the result is similar in appearance to traditional ormolu, it lacks the depth and richness of color that the mercury-gilding process produced.
How can you identify genuine ormolu on antiques?
Identifying genuine ormolu on antiques involves looking for certain characteristics such as a deep, rich gold color, and intricate detailing. The presence of wear or patina in crevices can indicate age, as modern reproductions often have a more uniform finish. Additionally, examining the underside or back of the piece for signs of mercury residue or a slightly rough texture can suggest the use of traditional gilding techniques. Consulting an expert or using a loupe to inspect the craftsmanship can also aid in authentication.
What is the historical significance of ormolu in art and design?
Ormolu holds significant historical value in art and design, particularly within the Rococo and Neoclassical periods. It was a symbol of wealth and status, as its golden sheen and elaborate designs reflected the tastes of the aristocracy and royalty. Ormolu was often used in the palaces of Europe, including Versailles, and became a hallmark of fine craftsmanship. Its use in clockmaking and furniture design also contributed to the evolution of decorative arts during the 18th and 19th centuries.
How should ormolu be cared for to preserve its condition?
To preserve ormolu, it should be handled with care and cleaned gently. Dusting with a soft, dry cloth can prevent buildup without damaging the gold surface. Avoid using abrasive cleaners or chemicals, as they can strip the gold layer. For more thorough cleaning, a slightly dampened cloth with distilled water can be used, followed by immediate drying with a soft cloth. It's important to minimize handling and exposure to fluctuating temperatures and humidity to maintain the ormolu's condition over time.