Welcome to Our World of Interesting words
This is a term that we hear around our auction house on a regular basis, especially in our Decorative Arts department.
It’s an odd-sounding word in English, but the French translation makes it clear – it means ground gold – “or” (gold) “moulu” (ground, as in ground up into a powder). The practice was perfected in France in the 1700’s and was used extensively in the decorative arts, and to enhance the beauty of furniture.
It was a process performed by gilders, who would mix the gold powder with mercury in a 1 to 10 solution and then burn the mercury off to create of vibrant matte gold finish. Using this process, one gram of gold could be stretched to gild many square inches. By burning off the mercury, about 20% it would become airborne which was extremely hazardous for the health of gilders.
Breathing in mercury, a neurotoxin, literally caused them to become as “mad as a hatter”. In fact, most gilders didn’t live beyond the age of 40. In France, after 1830, the government passed a law banning the use of mercury in gilding, but it’s difficult to say how strictly this was enforced.
Today, the term “ormolu” refers generally to a gilded matte gold finish, regardless of the process used to adhere the gold to the metal. “Hang him a gilder that hath his brains perished with quicksilver is not more cold in the liver” – John Webster, The White Devil.
Interested in finding out what your decorative arts, art, jewellery or might be worth? Contact Ellie to find out.
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