The Value of Handmade Gold Leaf
By ERLA ZWINGLE
This sidebar is a supplement to The World’s Greatest Goldbeater
High-quality gold leaf is produced industrially in a number of places—Giusto Manetti in Italy, Bernard Dauvet in France, and Sukado in Japan are some of the best-known names. These are all flourishing businesses that began as modest family enterprises, just like Mario Berta Battiloro, Marino Menegazzo’s age-old shop in Venice.
Is there a discernible difference between gold beaten mechanically or by hand? To figure this out, I interviewed expert metallurgists in several different countries. And at one point, I brought a sample of Menegazzo’s gold leaf to a master gilder in Washington, D.C., so I could watch him evaluate it.
The short answer is yes, there is a big difference, and on various levels.
For starters, consider the leaf’s thickness, says Mark Grimwade, the retired precious metals consultant to the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths in London. (Grimwade is also the author of “Introduction to Precious Metals,” the definitive textbook on gold metallurgy.) When modern gold leaf is produced using today’s commercial machinery, Grimwade says, it achieves a final thickness of 0.1 micron, “which is sufficient for most purposes.” In Grimwade’s experience, however, hand-beaten leaf can get significantly thinner—down to 0.05 micron.
Then there is the question of authenticity—a slippery value judgement if there ever was one. Still, there is at least one tangible way to measure authenticity: How much does the practice adhere to old traditions?
Byzantine goldbeaters would certainly recognize Menegazzo’s methods; only a few small changes have been made in the past century, and none of them relates to the hand-beating itself. “We’ve reduced the phases and the time required for beating,” Marino said, “but the process of working the gold has remained the same.” Gas recently replaced coal to heat the crucible. (“You needed half a day to smelt the gold with coal,” he says. With gas, it takes about half an hour.)
To save time, Menegazzo does use a motorized tilt hammer for the first round of beating. That doesn’t bother Grimwade. “I’m content that he uses a tilt hammer in the early stages, as this was commonly done in the past.” To make a packet of leaves for these beatings, mylar has replaced “goldbeater’s skins,” which were always made from the membrane of ox intestines. It’s not that there are no more oxen, but they’re expensive; more important, the plastic lasts longer. (“I don’t know if goldbeater’s skins would be good, I never used them,” Marino says. “But I know that after 100 blows you had to repair them. The mylar lasts for 1,000 blows.”)
Beyond the tools, Marino notes a more profound distinction. “The difference is that our gold leaf remains softer and silkier,” he told me, “while industrial leaf remains more rigid, more with that sense of being metallic. Our gold doesn’t undergo the [industrial] transformation—the molecule of gold remains unaltered.”
Scientific American explained this a long time ago. In an article published in 1869, the magazine said that malleable materials, such as gold, are “fluid, in a certain sense, and that this is due to the molecular arrangement… if proper means are employed to perform the operation gently” (in this case, beating the gold by hand rather than by aggressive machines) “…this may be done without breaking the continuity of the particles…”. Unbroken continuity means that, as Marino puts it, “the leaf remains more itself.”
William Adair, an expert gilder in Washington, D.C., noticed this quality in Marino’s leaf the moment I showed it to him. “You can tell it’s hand-beaten,” he said immediately after his first trial working with it. “It’s extremely thin, but there’s enough not to break as it’s tamped down into the cracks of the picture frame.” Furthermore, he said, “The color is so rich. It’s very fine gold. It will burnish beautifully. It’s superb.”
Yet hand-beating alone doesn’t necessarily guarantee a superb product. In Burma (or Myanmar), thousands of men still pound gold with hammers all day, every day. But their technique, and product, can’t approach Marino’s finesse for several reasons. For one thing, their gold isn’t smelted twice to guarantee purity. For another, they beat the gold very differently—standing up, and striking a gold packet at their feet with very long hammers. That makes it difficult to continually turn the form to ensure perfectly uniform density, so they don’t. As a result, Burmese leaf never reaches a fineness that would be useful to a European gilder. On the other hand, Burmese leaf is much less costly, so everybody can afford to offer it in Buddhist temples.
Ultimately, the conundrum of tradition and quality is resolved by how you define each term. In Burma, the one is maintained at the expense of the other (tradition wins, quality loses); in high-level industrial production, the relationship is reversed (at least approximately). Yet some companies, instinctively recognizing the emotional appeal of tradition, still promote their gold leaf with images of a lone man hammering away—even as their titanic machines, in reality, are doing the work. And buyers are perfectly happy with the result.
Still, the more I learned about the process, the more I wondered if the gold is equally content. There is a reason why certain crafts do not improve if they deviate too far from the old way. As far as gold is concerned, the evidence suggests that hand-beaten leaf can never be completely replicated by machine.
Redefining tradition sometimes does mean redefining quality. In the end, when no one is working anymore in the millennia-long tradition of the great European masters, the soul of gold leaf will no longer emerge. All that will be left is the husk.
- The Technical Journal, published by The Goldsmiths’ Company in London, is a leading source of expertise on gold. The journal is edited by Dr. Christopher Corti, who holds a Ph.D. in metallurgy from the University of Surrey (U.K.) and is the managing director of COReGOLD Technology Consultancy. (Corti has more than 38 years of experience in the precious metals industry and was Director of Technology for the World Gold Council. He is currently a consultant for GIA in California as well as for the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths in London, and was a key source for my reporting.)
- The Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths in London sponsors numerous programs, exhibitions, competitions and courses. Since 1300 it has tested the quality of gold and silver; from 1975, platinum; from 2010, palladium.
- William Adair of Gold Leaf Studios in Washington, D.C., is an internationally recognized gilder and frame restorer, and founding member of the Society of Gilders.
- And if you want to treat yourself to a gorgeous, evocative documentary of Marino Menegazzo’s shop at work, and its place in Venetian life today, try this 13-minute video. (Yes, it does include subtitles, in English.) If you want a shorter version and don’t need the subtitles, try this 3-minute video.