Purity of materials is at the heart of our philosophy. We find this aspect of our work even more valuable than its aesthetic appeal. While our designs are heavily academic, it would be a waste if the materials and techniques that we used to make them were not equally refined. We believe that a concept should be executed to completion to be of any value, and that includes historical accuracy in the production process.
While a compressor gun may be more convenient, it could never have the charm of a hand and a rag. Resin is certainly cheap, mass-producible and replaceable. But if you see these qualities as desirable, then perhaps Parrot & Lily is not for you.
For our hardware, we opt for casting solid brass. Each escutcheon, finial, door handle and mount is painstakingly made from a mould, based on a hand carved wooden model. And we go through this effort so you can experience the movement of the hand that fashioned your pieces every time you open a door, turn a lock or light a candle.
This week, as we introduce three new designs from our foundry, we thought we ought to delve into the history of brass and bronze in European decorative arts.
History and semantics
The element copper has been used for millennia for its antimicrobial properties. The same properties are true of its alloys as well, which make excellent door handles and drawer knobs.
Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin, sometimes containing zinc, aluminium or other elements as well. Initially made with arsenic, bronze casting was a perilously toxic process until the discovery of tin in the 5th millennium BC. The heralding of the Bronze Age, the development of writing, the invention of the wheel and what followed is, as they say, pre-history.
Bronze doré or ormolu is French for gilt bronze, which became immensely popular in 18th century French furniture guilds. Coating bronze with gold was much cheaper (and stronger) than solid gold but retained the oppulent bright golden exterior that is characteristic of the age. Andre Charles de Boulle came to be known for his inlaid and mounted bronze, brass and pewter (another alloy containing copper) at the very onset of the century.
During the Rococo Age, ormolu was used for sculptures, as mounts and details in furniture and was even mounted on porcelain. Classic rococo flourishes were developed on this medium. Delicate detailing was added by chiseling and chasing. These pieces were used to accentuate the shape and asymmetric aspect of furniture pieces.
Stunning pied de biche mounts. Only the sleekest piece of wood can go through this case.
By the neoclassical era, ormolu became even finer. Wreaths and garlands were used decoratively but detailed imagery and representative figures took centre stage.
Brass is similarly an alloy and copper and zinc. It is believed to have excellent acoustic qualities, and is often used in musical instruments. Brass has the appearance of a dull gold, which may be preferred by some over gilding. By default, our hardware is made in solid brass.
Brass reacts to oxygen, forming a green patina that is called tarnish. Patina is a highly desirable quality in any decorative item and well-intentioned but unfortunate connoisseurs often foolishly attempt to replicate the effect of long-term oxidation by using artificial means. On the other hand, some prefer to keep their pieces bright and shiny and opt for lacquering to protect it. Needless to say, we do neither. As always, we simply embrace our roles as spectators to the passing of time and its effect on natural materials.
A classic Louis XV frame cast in brass. Click on the image to shop.
It is important to note that while oxidation is a harmless process that forms on the surface of the brass without affecting its integrity, and can easily be removed, corrosion is the deterioration of the brass itself and can be spotted by red spots or the development of a black colour on the piece. Corrosion is caused by contact with moisture or ammonia and is not a concern for decorative pieces that are used indoors, as brass is quite resistant to corrosion.
There is no standard composition for bronze and brass. They can both be made of varying proportion of various components and as such, can end up with a similar composition and qualities.
Metal casting is the process by which metal is heated to a molten temperature and poured into a mould, where it is allowed to cool until the mould can be removed, allowing us to shape metals in any desired forms. It is a process older than history.
Cire perdue, or lost wax, is one of the oldest known techniques for casting. The first examples of this has been found from the Indus Valley civilisation, Mesopotamia, and the "Cave of Treasure" in Palestine. In this method, which is still used today, a wax based model is sculpted around which a negative (exact opposite) is made in a material like silicone. In a very complex and elongated process, layers of wax are poured into the mould, and swirled around to form an even layer on the inside. The outside of this wax mould is then dipped into silica and stucco and placed facedown in a kiln. While the silica and stucco harden into a shell on the outside, the wax on the inside melts away. This is the shell that is used for pouring bronze.
This is a very simple explanation of a very long and complex process. Often, there are multiple moulds that need to be joined to form the finished product. And keep in mind, all this is done by hand.
A number of Indus Valley Civilisation artefacts were made using this process, notably the mesmerising "Dancing Girl" sculpture, which can be found at the National Museum of India, here in Delhi.
On the left is the Dancing Girl. On the right is the Dancing Faun from Pompeii's House of the Faun. The casted statues of ancient Rome and Greece are examples of details immortalised.
So that is the story of one of history's most important materials. When we make our pieces in these traditions, we are not only creating something new but partaking in the process of human history, discovery, innovation and advancement. We invite you to do the same.