I brought my family to the Metropolitan Museum of Art last weekend to see their collection of electrotypes. This is a funny area of collecting. The electrotypes (high fidelity copies, akin to plaster casts) were once a core part of the Met’s collection before they began acquiring entirely original works of art. They languished in storage from the early 20th C. until this curator decided that the story of this collection and the technology behind it deserved a bit of light and air.
My interest in these objects is principally in the technology behind them, rather than the objects themselves, though many of them are beautiful. Electrotyping is a branch of electrometallurgy which encompasses electroplating, most notably. These things are essentially pure plating, built up in a mold, or over a model, until the plating is thick enough to stand up on its own. The detail the craftsman was able to achieve is literally on a molecule-by-molecule level of fidelity to the mold. The joy of these things is that extreme detail: flower petals, pupils and eyelashes, veins on oak leaves, bird feathers, etc.
The great makers of lighting in the early 20th century, among them Tiffany, E. F. Caldwell, and The Sterling Bronze Co. availed themselves of this process as well, which is where I became familiar with this type of work. Those guys designed originals directly for this process in many cases, and used the craft simply as a great method of production.
Lastly, the main modern expression of this process, the one with which we are most familiar is the humble “bronzed” baby shoe. An actual baby shoe is coated in some sort of electrically conductive material and submerged in a plating tank until enough metal accretes on its surface. Touching. Or if you are so inclined, you could subject your adult shoes to the process as well, as in this case, mounted on an urn… containing? - David Calligeros