The Art of Gold: Gilding and Gold Leaf in Interior Design


As specialists in luxury decoration, we regularly incorporate gold leaf and other precious metal leaves into our projects and we think a spotlight on this intricate material is deserved.

Find out more about the history of gold leaf, its uses in the modern world and why you should incorporate it into your luxury interior design projects today.

What is gold leaf?

Gold leaf is gold that has been hammered into thin sheets by “goldbeating” – the process of hammering the gold into an extremely thin unbroken sheet.

It is primarily used for gilding and is available in a wide variety of karats and tones which vary from yellow to silver.

Famous for being both indestructible and malleable, its craft dates back from ancient times and it can be applied to almost any surface, producing a warm glow on objects, architecture and sculptures.

The most commonly used gold leaf that you will have seen is made from 22-karat yellow gold.


A brief history of gold leaf

The first evidence of human interaction with gold was the Egyptians in around 3,000 B.C. Gold was considered the colour of the gods and the pharaohs and was even referred to as “the skin of gods”. The fine material was used to decorate the luxury rooms of the Pharaoh and served a myriad of purposes, but was predominantly used to showcase wealth and power via interior decoration or jewellery.

The techniques used are not as well documented thanks to the looting of Egyptian sites but Deborah Schorsch of the Department of Objects Conservation, The Metropolitan Museum of Art states that ‘gold leaf as thin as one micron was produced even in ancient times, and thicker foils or sheets were applied mechanically or with an adhesive to impart a golden surface to a broad range of other materials.’

One of the earliest examples of gold application that lives on is the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. Gold became an integral component of Byzantine and Roman churches and basilicas in 400 AD, and the mosaics in this instance were made of stone, tile or glass-backed on gold leaf walls.

Between the 11th to 13th centuries in Venice, craftsman began to play with the precious material. The “Sculoe”, a craftsmen’s corporations, was one first places to “beat” gold and turn it into the finest sheets of gold leaves. This was achieved by inserting a gold ribbon between two layers of animal skin, and beating it to create leaves as thin as a veil.

In ancient Greece, the most famous statues which utilised gold leaf were the chryselephantine statues which combined the luxury materials of gold leaf and ivory. Bare parts of the statue were made of ivory to reflect skin, while the robes and accessories were covered with gold leaf.

Archaic Chryselephantine statue fragments at Delphi Archaeological Museum
The material was also popular in sacred paintings and often the sky was made using gold leaf. This was known as “gold-ground” painting and was first known in Italy followed by the Byzantine
Empire and other European countries. If other godly or sacred figures were present, gold leaf was often used to distinguish them from others in the work.

During the 1800s, gold leaf had a resurgence in popularity and became sought after for use in art, sculpture, architecture and interior decoration. Today, gold leaf gilding is one of the most treasurable and richest crafts techniques. The ornamental decoration process is still seen as a sign of luxury and quality for use in projects that are designed to create impact; not limited to statues, luxury furniture or even frames.

What techniques are there for gold leaf?

Creating gold leaf is a time consuming and very detailed process and there are a number of techniques to work with the material. Look out for terms such as gilding, engraving oil gilding, water gilding, engraving, etching, polishing and verre églomisé. Each one takes know-how, patience and precision to get the desired finished result.

We’re going to take a look at traditional water gilding, one of the most difficult ways to work with gold but the technique remains unchanged for hundreds of years.

Before engraving or polishing gold leaf, at Pigmentti, we prepare the work with 16 layers of Gesso Bologna, eight layers of bole before finally water gilding. Water gilding is used to achieve a mirror finish on glass, but is also used on bole (clay) which means it can be used in interior architecture. Loose sheets of gold are layered on the bole which supplies a flexible surface. Once water gilding has taken place the process of engraving or polishing the gold begins. The bole allows for polishing the gold and gives it a red reflection thanks to the transparent nature of the leaf.

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