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gold leaf

Name for 24 karat gold, usually with a purity of 99.9%, that is flattened into ultra thin leaves through hammering, traditionally done manually by artisans called gold beaters and which despite growing industrialization are to date still active in places such as Myanmar, especially in Mandalay, using gold from the nation's own gold mines. Though it could in practice be done mechanically with an industrial press, the traditional way is the preferred method as it allows for the opportunity to make merit and gain better karma, especially when used for religious purposes. In the first stage, a gold ribbon is produced by rolling a solid gold nugget repeatedly through a rolling mill. Then, the ribbon is cut into small pieces of which the size is increased by beating it on a large block of granite, in several stages (fig.). In order to do this, the gold is placed in between special bamboo paper, which is made from a unique kind of solid bamboo, without the usual hollow stem of most species, and known as Calcutta Bamboo (Dendrocalamus strictus), and ‒though it can easily be torn‒ is also very strong to take the unremitting beatings of a 6.5-7 kilogram heavy hammer. This bundle of bamboo paper and gold is held together by a leather wrapper made from deer-hide and a two bamboo sticks on the sides (fig.), that are used to help attach the bundle to a fixed point while beating (fig.). Since gold leaf is mostly used as a Buddhist offering, the use of deer hide as a wrapper during production, rather than another kind of leather, may possibly be related to the first sermon of the Buddha held in a deer park called Mrigadava, as deer in Buddhism usually refer to this particular episode in the life of Buddha. To measure the time the workers make use of a coconut clepsydra (fig.). First the gold is beaten for 30 minutes. After this initial round of hammering, the gold is cut into 6 fingernail-sized pieces and beaten for another 30 minutes to increase its size to a near-square plaque with rounded corners of about 2.5x2.5 centimeters. After this, the result obtained from the second round of beating is hammered on for a third round, which lasts for 5 hours and increases the size of the gold six fold while making it wafer-thin. After this final round of beating, the obtained gold leaf has a thickness of only 0.008 mm and is rather oval to round in shape. It is now so thin that it can easily be blown away just by waving one's hand past it. In the final procedure, the rounded outlines are folded inward to create square shaped gold leaves measuring about 3x3 centimeters, using a tool made from horn and talcum powder to prevent the gold leaf from sticking to the workers' fingers, which are packed in straw paper. This is done is a closed off space to prevent any airflow to blow away the leaves. Beside gold leaf also thin gold plates (fig.) can be produced by beating in a similar way but by a somewhat different process (fig.). Whereas gold leaf is typically used to apply to religious objects, such as Buddha images (fig.), and is usually done by devotees, sometimes to an extend where the original object becomes completely covered beyond recognition, as is the case with the Hpaung Daw U Buddhas (fig.), gold plate is usually applied to large objects, such as pagodas, like Shwezigon Phaya (fig.) in Bagan and Shwedagon in Yangon, which is reportedly covered with 60 tons of gold (fig.). Gold leaf may also be applied in an ornamental way, usually on objects with a ground layer of lacquer, a form of art in Thai called laai rod nahm (fig.). In Thailand, a kind of so-called gold leaf is also applied to religious objects as a way of tamboon, a deed known in Thai as pit thong, but these leaves often contain only 5% gold (fig.). Since 24 karat gold is very soft and non-corrosive, as well as conductive, it in our time also has other often high-tech applications and is used for instance in certain electronic parts and specific computer components. The Thai name for gold leaf is thongkhamplaew.