Today’s journey through the ABCs of decorative arts brings us to a close look at ormolu. Ormolu, from the French or moulu, signifying ground gold, refers to a technique of gilding bronze mounts for furniture, clocks, candelabra and objects that was used throughout the eighteenth and into the nineteenth centuries.
The process of gilding a bronze mount involves the application of a mixture of ground gold and mercury followed by a firing in a kiln to just over 1000ºC. At this point the mercury evaporated and the gold powder fused to the bronze body.
Following the firing, the gilded mount would be removed and finally burnished and chased to the desired effect. Polishing the raised scrolls or foliage highlights, against a chased matt ground offered a attractive contrast that was highly desirable on exceptional pieces. The quality of craftsmanship varied hugely: the French sculptor and ciseleur Jacques Caffieri is now synonymous with the finest mounts. Caffieri produced mounts that matched the quality of contemporary jewellery, and supplied pieces amongst other clients to Louis XV.
Tragically, as with so many processes in the eighteenth century, exposure to the mercury vapour was the cause of a multitude of appalling health issues which would ultimately lead to the early death of the gilder. For this reason, the process was banned in the nineteenth century and was replaced with electroplating which is still used today.