NEW YORK – From time immemorial, mankind has been mesmerized by the glint of glimmering gold. Ancient Egyptians overlaid royal mummy cases and furniture with thin gold leaf; Chinese artisans adorned pottery, wood, textiles and decorative figurines with gilt designs. Greeks gilded marble statues and architectural elements, while Romans gilded temple and palace walls with this rare, highly malleable metal.
During the Renaissance, Italian craftsmen gilded sword blades and hilts, while masters, like Ghiberti (1378-1455) and Donatello (circa 1386-1466), created magnificent, religious-themed, gilt works of art. Ornamental gilt furnishings, however, became fashionable among French royalty and well-to-do centuries later. Their description – gilt-bronze or ormolu (literally “ground-gold”) – reflects their ancient method of production, fire-gilding.
After metal decorative items were designed, molded and cast, they were tooled in a variety of textured surfaces. This ensured that finished products would feature lively interplays of light.
In gilding, the final step, craftsmen coated these with an amalgam of ground-gold and mercury. As they were heated over open fires, the mercury vaporized, leaving a thin, dull, pure gold film behind. Subsequent waxing, refiring and burnishing to brightness created pieces that rivaled the richness of solid gold. Yet they were more durable, less costly, and considerably lighter in weight.
Like the Mad Hatter in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, however, fire-gilders suffered from exposure to the vaporized mercury. Stricken with “gilder’s palsy,” manifested by tremors, jerky gaits, stammering and “mercury madness,” few lived past the age of 40. Although France banned mercury-based artistic techniques in the 1830s, ormolu production continued. In fact, luxurious French ormolu remained the foundation of European decorative art through the early 20th century.
Designers closely followed evolving styles of French interior design. During the flamboyant reign of King Louis XIV (1643-1715), master cabinetmakers, fashioning exquisite furniture, for wealthy clientele, replaced functional bronze elements, protecting corners, cabinet keyholes and table feet, with ornamental ormolu-mounts. Since affluent clientele sought to flaunt their wealth, these soon became integral parts of furniture design itself.
Through the reign of Louis XV (1715-1774), fine furniture ormolu-mounts and fittings, shaped like shells, vines, flowers or leaves, were decorative in their own right. They not only enhanced the general appearance of luxury writing-tables, marquetry-cabinets and bureaus. By accenting borders and edges, they also emphasized their stylish scrolling and serpentine shapes. Craftsmen also created lavish ormolu-mount pieces, like vases, sculptural clocks, wall sconces and firedogs (decorative andirons). Craftsmen, “gilding the lily,” also enhanced extravagant Sevres porcelain with ormolu-mounts.
In the reign of Louis XVI (1774-1792), decorative ormolu-mounts embellished a wide range of pieces, including cabinet-on-stands, commodes and credenzas. Ormolu-mounts also transformed functional candlesticks, candelabras and chandeliers into fonts of shimmery, lustrous light. Richly ornamented, ormolu-mount clocks were coveted eye-catchers as well. These were so impressive that, to this day, “Louis XVI-style” creations remain the height of elegance.
Toward 1800, fine ormolu-mounts, resembling garlands, tied ribbons, drapery and classical figures, not only embellished worktables, salon-chairs and consoles. They also adorned smaller pieces like vases, jewelry boxes, inkstands, urns and crystal centerpieces. Similarly, architectural mantel clocks gleamed with ormolu-mount sculptures of Cupids, Greek warriors and winged goddesses. Toward mid-century, remarkable ormolu-mount mantel clocks even depicted highly ornate, spired façades of French Gothic cathedrals.
Because these creations have little melt-down value, many have survived. Since certain models appeared repeatedly, mounts were fraudulently cast, and regilded older pieces appear as new, however, dating them may prove problematic. Though few are signed, some may be identified by their quality, contemporary descriptions or study of existing models. French ormolu clocks, on the other hand, sometimes bear names of their gilders, casemakers, dial makers and enamelers.