Blog - Grand Auctions

Decorating Silver: Gilding


The term ‘silver gilt’ is used to describe an item of silver completely covered in a thin layer of gold. However, as you will find, this term is often loosely used to describe ‘parcel gilt’ silver objects. Parcel gilding in fact refers to a silver object only partially covered with gold. For some reason, 'parcel' is actually a corruption of the word 'partial' in this context, although I am not sure exactly when this change occurred.

Mercurial fire gilding

There are two known methods of gilding silver, the earlier form being mercurial fire gilding and the latter being electro gilding. Surprisingly, mercurial fire gilding is in fact the finest form of gilding known to exist, even though not being used in the world today. This is due to the extremely poisonous nature of the technique. It involved mixing powdered gold with mercury to form an amalgam. This concoction was painted on to the necessary parts of the object and then heated in a fire. As the object heated up, the mercury was driven off leaving the gold fused to the surface. Unfortunately, the mercury being driven off produced a poisonous vapour which made the technique very dangerous risking the lives of those working with this method. Hence, inevitably, this process was made illegal once electro gilding was introduced.

Electro gilding

The electro gilding technique enables an even distribution of gold to be applied to the silver object using an electrolytic process. Electro gilding was first introduced in the early 19th century by silversmiths. Various electrolytic experiments and patents were created in relation to the plating of one metal to another including gold. However, in 1840, the company Elkington eventually fully mastered an effective electroplating technique triggering the birth of a huge new industry leading to the production of a multitude of electroplated silver wares.

If you have any silver you would like to have valued, gilt or otherwise, please contact Robin Newcombe of Grand Auctions, Folkestone, Kent.

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