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.
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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.