Gold leaf comes in many karats and colors, although 22K gold is used most frequently. It is made by rolling gold into flattened ribbons approximately 0.001 inch (0.0025 cm) thick. The ribbons are then cut into squares, with sides of just over an inch (3 cm). These squares are placed between sheets of heavy paper and stacked into a pile. A pile of sheets will be bound with parchment and beaten on a stone. Beating, cutting, and restacking will continue until the sheets are about 0.000004 inches (0.0001mm) thick.
The ancient Egyptians applied thin sheets of gold to metals and wood in a process we know today as gilding . Their craftsmen produced layers of gold so thin that a stack one inch (2.5 cm) thick contained more than 360,000 sheets. The Romans were known to gild the ceilings of their temples and palaces. Gold leaf, adhered with gum Arabic, was used extensively in the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
Today, gold leaf is used to adorn porcelain, wood, glass, and other surfaces. The lettering on expensive book jackets may be applied gold leaf. The interiors and exteriors of some of the world’s most beautiful buildings have been decorated with gold leaf.
Extensive gold leaf was used in the interiors of the Palace of Versailles outside Paris, and St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Gold leaf was also used on the exteriors of many religious structures throughout India and Asia, and is still used today on the domes of many state capitol buildings throughout the United States.
Buildings with magnificent gold leaf exteriors include the Shwe Dagon Pagoda, a 2,500 year-old Buddhist shrine in Myanmar; the Golden Temple of the Sikhs in Amritsar, India; and the domes of the Cathedral of Our Saviour in the Kremlin. Food-grade gold leaf is non-toxic and is used to decorate fine foods, particularly chocolate and desserts.
Guidelines of the Federal Trade Commission outline the standards for gold plating in the US, which is based on the thickness of the gold layer. There are several kinds of gold plate and it is important for consumers to be educated about the differences.
In the chart below, the various types of gold plate are broken down in detail.
Next, learn about the Gold Standard | A Standard Measurement of Money.