The splendour of silver: the vermeil technique

During the eighteenth century it was conceived a metallurgical technique capable of making silver immutable and even more shiny. This process, called vermeil, is still used today for the production of valuable objects.

History and method

In various eras, the artisans of metal dealt with the problem of silver oxidation when exposed to air, a chemical reaction that caused the corrosion of the precious mineral and consequently of the artwork. How could silverware preserve over time?
The response was provided in the mid-eighteenth century by some French goldsmiths who, through a fire gilding, applied to the surface of silver a sheet of gold.
The procedure consisted in bath of the object with an amalgam of gold and mercury, and in a subsequent heating, phase in which the mercury evaporated while gold adhered silver. In the end, it appeared an object with a strong steel and brightness, more precious than silver and with the typical benefits of gold. This process was called vermeil.


Vermeil defined a special technique to get silver coated with a fine gold plaque, but it literally meant vermilion, a tone of red that was extremely difficult to reproduce before the advent of synthetic dyes in the nineteenth century. The term was derived from the Latin diminutive vermicŭlu(m), indicating a “little worm”, which by antonomasia was the cochineal, a South American plant pest that if squeezed and dried it produced a bright and long lasting red color. The properties of the insect were exploited in Europe thanks to the explorations of the Spanish conquistadors. In the sixteenth century, the textile industry of the continent began to depend on the cochineal for the creation of fabrics in red, a color that, due to its rarity, was considered royal and consequently very expensive (its value was comparable to that of gold and silver). According to this, it is now possible to assume that the French goldsmiths of the eighteenth century had chosen the word vermeil in order to give a connotation of value and prestige to the gilded silver artifacts made for their rich and famous clients.


The vermeil silver is apparently comparable at the gold but it is more resistant, thanks to its primary composition of sterling silver (titled 925/1000). It is also hypoallergenic and able to counteract the corrosive action of oxygen. In the past, because of its outstanding ability to reflect light, it was used in the construction of small cups for wine tasting called Tastevin or Weinprobiereschale: the brightness of the vermeil silver resulted in fact crucial for the wine’s chromatic analysis in cellars, which were often dark.


In order to be called vermeil, silver plated with gold must have two specific requirements:

  • the base must be of sterling silver;
  • the gold foil must be at least 10 carats and with a thickness of 1.5-2 microns.

The market value of the vermeil silver is greater than silver and it varies greatly depending on the carat weight of gold (from 10 to 32 carats).

The vermeil silver nowadays

Even today vermeil silver pieces are manufactured (jewelry, medallions, fountain pens, cutlery, etc..) but with one major difference: because of the extreme toxicity of mercury, the fire gilding has been abandoned in favor of the galvanic gilding that, through an industrial method of electrolysis, ensures equal results without health risks.

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