A handsome Georgian back comb in steer horn and fire gilded brass
CONDITION: good vintage condition
SIZE: 3½ ins h x 3½ ins w (8 x 8 cms)
APPROXIMATE DATE: 1800s – 1820s
MATERIALS: steer horn, metal, carnelian
Here is an attractive comb which dates from the first quarter of the 19th century. It is based upon a comb mount of natural horn, which has been left in its natural opaque colouration. The mount has 10 tapering tines which are all nicely pointed and in good condition.
Affixed to the heading by rivets is a covering of gilded metal overlaid by a filigree grille. This has been brought to a high polish and the appearance of real gold by a process known as fire or mercury gilding.
The main feature of the heading is an oval carnelian coloured glass jewel set in a plain frame. This is set against a design of stylized leaves and flowers in bright gold metal which shows up against the matte groundwork.
Early ornamental combs are often made from inexpensive materials such as horn, and gilded metal. They are often flat in construction compared with later examples which are deeply curved to fit the back of the head. The idea of shaping both the heading and the prongs to fit the back of the skull appears to have evolved gradually
Early 19th century combs are narrow topped and restrained in design. There is little imagination about the motifs used – vines, clusters of grapes, and palm or laurel leaves together with the Greek Key and classical heads. Filigree was also very popular.
The final illustration presents a collection from contemporary sources of these combs, showing how they were worn.
Fire-gilding or mercury-gilding is a process by which an amalgam of gold is applied to metallic surfaces, the mercury being subsequently volatilized, leaving a film of gold. By this method, its colour is further improved and brought nearer to that of gold, probably by removing any particles of copper that may have been on the gilt surface. This process, when skilfully carried out, produces gilding of great solidity and beauty, but owing to the exposure of the workmen to mercurial fumes, it is very unhealthy.
This method of gilding metallic objects was formerly widespread, but fell into disuse as the dangers of mercury toxicity became known. Breathing the fumes generated by this process can quickly result in serious health problems. This process was generally supplanted by the electroplating of gold over a nickel substrate, which is more economical and less dangerous.
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