When used in the context of vintage silver; vermeil, goldwash and gilding are all essentially synonymous terms that indicate a piece of silver is either partially or entirely covered in a very thin layer of gold or gold alloy.
There are two reasons to goldwash a piece. The first is for entirely decorative reasons. It may be used to highlight an aspect of the piece’s design or simply emphasise the visual richness of the object. The vermeil could then be left either as a gold sheen over the piece or further decoration, usually in the form of tooling could be added.
The second reason is more functional. Vermeil covering silver provides protection from tarnishing. Typically items that were gilded for protective purposes include the interior of salt cellars, teapots, and other hollowware that might contain a food that causes relatively rapid tarnishing. Arguably, certain pieces of flatware were also goldwashed for the same purpose — berry spoons, and egg servers come to mind.
How is goldwashing done?
Again, generally speaking, silver was gilded by one of two methods. The first is mercury gilding. Gold and mercury were mixed and painted in a thin layer onto the silver. The piece would be heated and the mercury would vaporize, leaving only a microscopically thin layer of gold.
The second is a variation of electro-plating, also known as electro-gilding. This chemical process can be used to leave a gold layer of varying depths, depending on the desires of the designer.
How long has gilding been around?
As for how long goldwashing has been around, I’ve found conflicting references. One source says gilding has been around since ‘ancient times’, while a different reference considers gilding to be an 18th century French technique. The different dates of origin may refer to specific technical issues between gilding versus vermeil, rather than the larger concept of covering silver with a thin layer of gold.
Inspiration for this post was provided by a new addition to the Magpies family…one who is contributing her own twist to our version of goldwashing…think lots of fluffy Golden Retriever fur gently dusting our house.
Meet Macallan, seen here pestering her big sister Talisker.