Expensive gold leaf is much in demand to adorn public structures – even as its hand beating is becoming a lost craft
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.
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
Master gold-beater Dieter Drotleff has been on the job for 48 years
Workers regilding the 8.3-metre-tall statue on Berlin’s Victory Column