5,000 years ago, Egyptian craftsmen recognized the remarkable durability and malleability of gold and became the first goldbeaters and gliders. They hammered gold using a round stone to make the thinnest leaf possible. Today, the technique is heavily used by Japanese artisans in the city of Kanazawa to create gold leaf. Gold leaf is perhaps the finest material on the planet whose thickness measures a mere 10,000th of a millimeter (0.0001 mm).
Kanazawa produces 99% of Japan’s gold leaf thanks to its water quality and favorable climate. The city is also a major producer of Japanese silver, brass leaf and uwazumi, which is somewhat thicker than metal leaf.
History of gold leaf in Kanazawa
While the root of gold leaf production in Kanazawa is not clear, one of the great rulers of Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi was known for his obsession for gold. Even so, every ruler in Japan liked to use gold leaf in furniture and buildings as a representation of their power.
Towards the late 17th century, the Edo government opened a “Hakuza” market in Edo, which is the present-day Tokyo to regulate the production and sales of gold and silver leaf across the whole of Japan. During that time, production of gold leaf was strictly prohibited in other places other than the markets of Edo and Kyoto, while the feudal government tried to strengthen its economic system.
With the government ban in place, artisans in Kanazawa were unable to manufacture or sell gold leaf. Yet, they strove to establish a local gold leaf production industry, secretly manufacturing gold-leaf and creating various traditional artifacts and techniques that use the metal leaf.
After several twists and turns, control over the industry came to an end following the Meiji Restoration in 1868 when Edo Shogunate surrendered political power to the Emperor. Gold leaf manufacturing and sales then became known nationwide and have been used in many forms to date. In addition to the favorable Kanazawa’s climate, artisans experience and creativity during the ban period helped in developing exceptional techniques which have been passed down to the present generation.
Gold leaf in art
Traditionally, it was commonly used as gliding material for decoration of art such as statues and the picture frames that are often used to hold or decorate paintings, jewelry and paper art. The possibilities are actually endless, as gold leaf can be used in traditional craftwork, paintings, architecture, and contemporary interior goods with minimal differences in composition and through special processing. The leaf-making skill in its manufacturing is also applied to other metals including silver, brass and tin.
In later years of the Early Christian art, old ground paintings were introduced in mosaics where the background of the subjects was all in gold. It was then used in religious works of art (icons) in decorating religious subjects, including Christ, Mary, angels and/or saints. During the European Bronze Age, gold leaf was used in wrapping objects by folding it tightly over.
Gold leaf is also currently used in Buddhist art to decorate symbols and statues and can be seen on domes of various religious and public architecture. The famous Taj Mahal is the closest example where gold leafing was heavily used in its several decorations.
Today, gold leaf is often used in art in its raw state (without the gliding process). Gold picture frames made without leafing are available for a relatively lower price from various companies that manufacture commercial picture frames.
Gold leaf in architecture
From ancient shrines to modern structures, gold leaf has been a vital component to designate important buildings since the dawn of mankind. Golden-domed structures can withstand weather, wear and tear, and even modern day pollution, keeping them stunning sites for decades.
Golden architecture became a fundamental component of Roman churches and basilicas back in 400 A.D. The Basilicca di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome is the most notable and one of the earliest churches of gold mosaics.
In London, the Criterion Restaurant opened in 1873 in the heart of the city features a sparkling ceiling of gold mosaic, coved at the edges and patterned entirely with lines and ornaments in white and blue tesserae.
Being a safely inhalable material, gold is often used to decorate drinks, food and cosmetics. It typically promotes a perception of high value and luxury, yet it adds no flavor to food or drinks. It is sometimes present in desserts and confectionery such as chocolates and honey.
In Europe, liquors with miniature floating pieces of gold leaf are popular since the late 16th century, a practice which was originally regarded as medicinal. In India, they use gold leaf as a garnish especially on festive occasions, with slender sheets placed on the main course. The traditional Japanese green tea, mostly produced in Kanazawa also contains pieces of gold leaf.
A single piece of gold leaf can make you feel rich and joyful. The remarkable traditional techniques of Kanazawa shed light and happiness to the lives of many people today. For the people of Kanazawa, sleekly made and glistering gold and silver leaf remains an integral part of their rich culture of artistic work.