Gold leaf has been used by artisans for thousands of years to gild works of art. While gilding is an art form that takes great skill, it was a much more painstaking and backbreaking endeavor to create the gold leaf in the first place. The technique, known as goldbeating, was developed by the Egyptians and is still used by some artisans today.
Rolling a bar of refined gold is the first step of the process. The gold is passed through a rolling mill over and over, getting flatter each time – as thin as 1/1,000 of an inch. However, that isn’t thin enough – the rolling process is just preparation for the real work.
Sections of the rolled bar are cut into small squares and placed into a “cutch” – which holds them in place for hammering. Cutch traditionally comes from the intestinal membrane of oxen because it is very thin, elastic, and able to withstand hammering. Mylar acts a modern-day substitute. The cutch is then tightly wrapped in hundreds of layers of parchment. The result is a packet that holds the gold in place and allows it to spread thin. Think of it like a wallet. Your ID (the gold) fits into the window sleeve (cutch), which is enveloped by the rest of the wallet (parchment).
The packet is placed on a block of granite, then hammered by hand for several hours. The experienced goldbeater maintains a metronome-like pace and rotates the packet periodically to ensure that the gold spreads evenly. When it’s finished, the gold is removed, cut, and placed into another packet for the process to be repeated at least two more times. The result is a sheet of gold nearly 1/250,000 of an inch thick.
Goldbeating requires hours of brutal monotony, but it has resulted in countless beautiful artifacts. You probably won’t find any jewelers using this old method in the Diamond District, but it still used by some refiners in Myanmar and India.