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Only two companies in Germany have mastered this art

Lara Haferung grabs the delicate gold leaf with the wooden tweezers.

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Only two companies in Germany have mastered this art

Lara Haferung grabs the delicate gold leaf with the wooden tweezers. She gently breathes against it so that it spreads smoothly over her workplace. The 23-year-old cuts the sheet into an eight-by-eight-centimetre square, which she – again with a touch – places in a little book between tissue paper.

Calmly and skilfully, the young woman demonstrates the last step in a craft that officially no longer exists in Germany. Her father, Armin Haferung, 47, is the last trained master goldbeater in Germany. Of the 130 companies that mined gold into wafer-thin plates around the town of Schwabach near Nuremberg at the beginning of the 20th century, only two remain.

The larger one is called Noris gold leaf. Lara Haferung would like to take over the company from her father - in the sixth generation. She has been preparing for this for years. Because the training profession of goldbeater no longer existed, she apprenticed with a gilder and immediately went to master school in Munich. Now, parallel to her work in the company, she is studying media design online. Their goal: The company and the centuries-old craft should get a more modern touch.

It is actually necessary. The product itself is spectacular though. Gold leaf from the Haferung family adorns the Berlin Victory Column, the Pope's lectern in St. Peter's Basilica and the domed roofs of the "Kempinski" hotel in Dubai. Yacht owners from the Middle East use it to gild their cabins, top chefs decorate their desserts, and cosmetics manufacturers stir it into expensive creams. But twists and turns in world history – from Covid to the Russian attack on Ukraine to austerity programs in public budgets – are making business difficult.

A visit to the Schwabach company is a journey back in time. Knocking, hammering and hissing can be heard in the manufactory. A lot is still done by hand at Noris-Blattgold. "It has to be like this in order to do justice to the special material," explains Lara Haferung.

An employee who has been with us for more than 20 years takes 850 grams of gold granulate from an old safe, melts it in a small furnace at a good 1200 degrees Celsius and then pours it into an ingot mould. He lets the narrow bar cool down in a bucket of water and then guides it through a roller again and again. In further work steps, a long gold band is created, which is hammered flat with different machines.

Finally it is the turn of the circumcisers, who use their wooden tweezers to pack the gold leaf in books of 25 pieces. There are also machines that cut gold leaf - but none that work as "tenderly and delicately" as the staff at Noris-Blattgold, as Lara Haferung enthuses. The finished gold leaf is a ten-thousandth of a millimeter thick – around 4,000 times thinner than a human hair. 850 grams of gold become 200 square meters of gold leaf. The value of the precious metal alone is around 40,000 euros.

80 to 20 is the rule of thumb that Armin Haferung mentions. She explains why gold leaf is still made in Germany with so much manual work. The raw material accounts for 80 percent of the costs. In the case of Noris gold leaf, this is exclusively recycled gold, but this is also based on the world market price. Work is only 20 percent of the cost. With many other products - from cotton shirts to mobile phones - the situation is reversed. The workbenches have long since been in Asia.

125 people work for Noris-Blattgold – around 50 of them in Schwabach, around 25 in field service around the world and 50 in a plant in northern Croatia. Since 2012, the gold leaf itself has not been produced there, but accessories, such as booklets made of tissue paper or brushes, for processing. In Schwabach, many of the employees work part-time.

Production is already at a standstill on Thursday afternoon – due to the seasonality, there are fewer orders in winter, explains Armin Haferung. He does not want to give specific figures on sales and profits and their development since Covid and the Ukraine war. Only that one assumes to be the world market leader in the production of gold leaf to this day.

The family sees no competition from China, at least. "They couldn't produce much cheaper, but worse," says Lara Haferung. The leaves produced there are sometimes unevenly beaten and prone to cracks, or the carat number is tricked. "Then the gold suddenly turns dark after two years."

Schwabacher Blattgold is said to last around 30 years outdoors before it weathers. That is why there are regular orders for renovations from churches and municipalities. If things go well, there are also new customers from the Middle East or Asia who have hotels, yachts or private houses gilded. Russians, however, who have been important buyers for years, are now no longer available as customers. International sanctions prohibit export.

The Schwabach manufactory, founded in 1876, is always a mirror of world history. Initially, commissions from royal houses determined the business. Production had to be completely shut down during World War II. The opening and cooperation with gilders all over the world followed. Today's clientele ranges from interior designers of New York penthouses to international artists.

Lara Haferung would like to reach even more people in the future. The reserved young woman, who describes herself as artistic, close to her homeland and hardworking, implements the lessons she has learned from her online studies in the company. She has renewed the website and is currently having it translated into many languages. In videos on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, it is aimed at gilding professionals, but also at artists and hobbyists. She explains the production of gold leaf and what can be made of it. "I'm proud of our craft and I want to pass on the enthusiasm."

Her father, it seems, gives her free rein. He only joins the conversation at the end of the visit and only when expressly requested. A friendly man, clearly proud of his daughter. An exact date for the generation change has not yet been agreed, both say. She hopes that "dad" will stay for at least seven more years, says the daughter. Then she will be 30 and “maybe capable of” the task – together with her sister, who is three years younger. She has just completed a commercial apprenticeship and could take on the office work while the older one takes care of sales and production.

That's roughly the plan. "Nobody actually needs gold leaf," says Armin Haferung. "But everyone wants to see it." Together, the Haferung family does everything to ensure that it stays that way.

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