SHIN­ING PROSPECTS

Ex­pen­sive gold leaf is much in de­mand to adorn pub­lic struc­tures – even as its hand beat­ing is be­com­ing a lost craft

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - Contents - IRMGARD HOCHREITHER FROM STERN

The an­cient art of gold-beat­ing may soon be lost to the world – even as de­mand for ex­pen­sive gold leaf re­mains high.

EV­ERY­THING VI­BRATES. The floor, the win­dow panes, the his­tor­i­cal as­say bal­ances in their show­cases, the framed mas­ter crafts­man’s cer­tifi­cates on the walls, even the gilded replica of Michelan­gelo’s fa­mous David. A dis­tant dull din fills the re­cep­tion area of the Noris Blattgold gold leaf com­pany in Sch­wabach, Ger­many. The rhyth­mic

FROM ONE KILO OF GOLD, THEY PRO­DUCE UP TO 100,000 WAFER-THIN LEAVES OF THE PRE­CIOUS METAL

ham­mer­ing and throb­bing come from be­low. “That’s the ham­mer­ing room down there,” says mas­ter gold­beater Di­eter Drotl­eff. “We can have a look at it later.”

Sch­wabach in Fran­co­nia, south­ern Ger­many, has been a gold-beat­ing cen­tre since the 16th cen­tury. As late as 1927, there were still 120 of these en­ter­prises in the town. Of these only four are left. As the mar­ket leader in Europe, Noris Blattgold is one of the big names in the busi­ness. About 40 per cent of the world­wide de­mand for gold leaf is ful­filled from here. Hardly any­one knows the finer points of goldleaf pro­duc­tion as well as Drotl­eff, 63. A na­tive of Fran­co­nia, he has been on the job for 48 years. “I’m the old­est ac­tive gold-beater in Ger­many,” he says proudly.

Then he opens the door to a room packed with cup­boards and equip­ment. Hud­dled against the long side wall are the safes where the pre­cious metal is kept. Placed be­fore the fron­tend wall are the fur­naces; in the mid­dle of the room are the rolling ma­chines.

“We don’t only work on gold,” Drotl­eff tells us, “we also process sil­ver, plat­inum, pal­la­dium and cop­per.” He lets a few grains of gold slide through his fin­gers into a little pot. “Here,” he says, “take it in your hand.” With a slight grin he hands it over. “Pretty heavy, isn’t it?” he asks. “About 1200 grams. You wouldn’t think so, but what you have in your hands is worth around 36,000 eu­ros (A$55,000)!”

The gran­u­lated gold is melted at 1250° C, poured into a mould that shapes it into rec­tan­gu­lar bars, then fed into rolling ma­chines that can be traced back to one of Leonardo da Vinci’s in­ven­tions. The con­i­cal rollers en­sure that the gold bars orig­i­nally mea­sur­ing 20 x 4 x 0.5 cm get longer after each pass through the ma­chine, while at the same time main­tain­ing their four-cen­time­tre breadth.

Be­tween the rolling pro­cesses, the gold has to be re­peat­edly heat­soft­ened at 600°C to pre­vent it from tear­ing. After count­less rolling and

heat-soft­en­ing pro­ce­dures, the rib­bon is about one and a half me­tres long: 23-carat gold, thin as a sheet of news­pa­per. “But nowhere near gold-leaf qual­ity,” says Drotl­eff.

The glim­mer­ing metal fas­ci­nated him at an early age. “No other metal can be beaten this thin,” he ex­plains. “Down to one four­teen-thou­sandth of a mil­lime­tre; in other words, if you put 14,000 of the leaves on top of one another, you have a thick­ness of one mil­lime­tre.” His eyes light up with en­thu­si­asm. “It’s so thin, you can look through it like win­dow glass.”

Ev­ery day the Noris fac­tory pro­cesses three ki­los of gold worth some 100,000 eu­ros (A$152,000). From one kilo of gold, they pro­duce up to 100,000 wafer-thin leaves of the pre­cious metal. They are nor­mally sold in book­lets of 25 pieces. One gram is suf­fi­cient to gild up to 1.7 square me­tres. “Look,” says Drotl­eff. “This sin­gle 50-gram gold coin is enough to gild the big eques­trian statue of Au­gust the Strong in Dres­den.” His eyes twin­kle as he adds: “And you’d still have some to spare!”

AFTER ROLLING, the gold rib­bon is cut into four-cen­time­tre squares. Then it is placed by the sen­si­tive hands of fe­male em­ploy­ees ( Noris has 80 work­ers on the pay­roll) in the mid­dle of pieces of tile-sized pa­per from old tele­phone books: gold, phone book, gold, phone book, gold un­til there are 1500 leaves piled on top of one another. A leather cuff

holds the packet in place un­til it is taken down to the base­ment for its first con­tact with the ham­mer.

Hour by hour the ‘squasher’, the au­to­matic ham­mer, wal­lops the packet un­til the leaves are 14 x 14 cm in size and a thou­sandth of a mil­lime­tre ‘thick’. “But this is still not gold leaf,” Drotl­eff bel­lows against the in­fer­nal din. After the ham­mer on­slaught the gold is cut into nine parts by a ma­chine de­vised spe­cially

for the pur­pose. Then the women use ebony tweez­ers to place the squares back in the mid­dle of the pa­per. The packet now con­sists of 1200 leaves and is placed within a goatskin cuff be­fore the next round of wal­lop­ing. After that, the leaves are cut and beaten one more time un­til they are so thin that you can see through them. “Only now,” says Drotl­eff, “can we call it gold leaf.”

Fi­nally, the beaten gold is cut to the req­ui­site size and placed by hand be­tween sheets of tis­sue pa­per. Some­times the leaves can best be po­si­tioned by blow­ing on them. Then the book­let with the frag­ile sheets is ready for ship­ment.

Gold leaf from Sch­wabach is ex­ported to 50 coun­tries. Glues, spe­cial brushes and ground­ings are also avail­able. “Gilders can get any­thing they need from us,” says Drotl­eff. “At present, most of the gold goes to Rus­sia.” It has given new glit­ter and glam­our to the Bol­shoi The­atre in Moscow and the foun­tain of Nep­tune in St Peters­burg. “At the Bol­shoi they used five ki­los of gold leaf alone for the re­fur­bish­ment of the in­te­rior. It’s ap­plied with fine brushes made of the bushy tail hair of Siberian squir­rels.”

But the Rus­sians are not the only ones to gild their lilies. Fran­co­nian gold leaf is also to be found on the dome of Les In­valides in Paris, in the Church of St Mary Mag­da­lene in Jerusalem, on the lux­ury lim­ou­sines of Arab sheiks, and on the Vic­tory Col­umn in Ber­lin. In 2010, the city do­nated 1.2 ki­los of Sch­wabach gold to the Ber­lin­ers’ beloved ‘golden Elsa’ for a com­plete make-over.

ALL THIS makes for shin­ing prospects. Ju­nior man­ag­ing di­rec­tor Ar­min Hafer­ung, 41, a qual­i­fied ma­chine en­gi­neer, is the fourth-gen­er­a­tion head of the firm, which was es­tab­lished in 1876. He is very happy with the way

things are go­ing. “Gold leaf is in fash­ion,” he says. “De­mand is in­creas­ing all the time. In the last few years, we have noted that it is be­ing used more and more for high-qual­ity in­te­rior dec­o­ra­tion of yachts, air­craft and apart­ments. Huge quan­ti­ties of gold are used to up­grade the yachts of multi-mil­lion­aires. Not only is the ma­te­rial very ex­pen­sive, but also the ap­pli­ca­tion process.”

Pre­cious met­als are of course a sign of power and sta­tus. “When­ever a state visit is on the agenda,” says Hafer­ung, “you need gold leaf.”

Another big seller is ed­i­ble gold. Both in ex­clu­sive cui­sine and in pri­vate kitchens, gold is an un­beat­able eye­catcher. “It’s sup­posed to be good for you,” Hafer­ung com­ments. After all, the renowned medieval herbal­ist Hilde­gard von Bin­gen swore by its pow­ers for treat­ing gout, fever and deaf­ness.

On the wall hangs a doc­u­ment cer­ti­fy­ing that Ar­min Hafer­ung is a ‘ mas­ter gold- beater’. Rue­fully he points out that he is prob­a­bly the last and youngest mas­ter crafts­man of this par­tic­u­lar guild. Of­fi­cially, the gold-beater pro­fes­sion ceased to ex­ist back in 2002. Since then, gold-beat­ers have been lumped in to­gether with other ‘dec­o­ra­tive met­al­work­ers’, another in­stance of a ven­er­a­ble tra­di­tion sac­ri­ficed on the al­tar of moder­nity.

But all is not gloom. Hafer­ung and his staff rep­re­sent the link be­tween old and new. In the in­ter­est of com­pet­i­tive clout, Hafer­ung has had a num­ber of spe­cial ma­chines de­vel­oped and built for his gold-leaf pro­duc­tion. But he still avows his ­al­le­giance to hu­man crafts­man­ship. (Mas­ter gold-beater Drotl­eff works the pound­ing stone, wal­lop­ing the metal with the power of his own mus­cles and a 12-kilo ham­mer, de­spite the fact that ma­chines have mostly taken over that ex­haust­ing job.) “The ­ma­te­rial is so thin that we’re con­stantly ­op­er­at­ing be­tween to­tal de­struc­tion and ­supreme qual­ity,” he says. “It would be too much of a risk if we au­to­mated ev­ery pro­duc­tion stage.”

So a touch of magic re­mains. And as a proverb has it: A use­ful trade is a mine of gold.

Work­ers regild­ing the 8.3-me­tre-tall statue on Ber­lin’s Vic­tory Col­umn

Mas­ter gold-beater Di­eter Drotl­eff has been on the job for 48 years

Top: After it’s melted at 1250°C, the gold is cast into a bar us­ing a mould. Above: the gold is lay­ered be­tween thin pa­per and pounded into sheets us­ing ham­mers

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