Checking yourself in the mirror is something we all do several times a day. We trust mirrors to give us an accurate reflection. They tell us if there’s spinach in our teeth, or if our shirts look bad with our shoes. Mirrors are also made to flatter and distort, with convex shapes to make us look taller and thinner or tints to reflect warm tones and give our skin a healthy rosy hue. It took humanity thousands of years to go from catching a glimpse of themselves in a bowl of water to that first perfect mirror, but we’ve been playing with our reflection ever since.
Some of the very first mirrors were made from polished obsidian and sometimes bronze or copper. Sizable pieces of highly polished metal were not easy to come by and were reserved for the very rich. The Romans thought to combine the reflective quality of polished metal with the rigidity and clarity of glass, and developed a technique of coating blown glass with molten lead. The reflection, however, was no better than the surface of a lake. By the medieval period, religious superstitions drove mirrors out of the market, and by the time they returned in the 13th century they were still expensive and imperfect.
In the 1600s, the Venetians finally succeeded in making flat glass mirrors coated with a mixture of tin, bronze and gold, lighting up the insides of royal villas with glittering reflections. The feat was nothing short of a masterpiece: the price for a single mirror was comparable to a large naval ship.
Over the next several centuries mirror-making made a few advances, but it wasn’t until 1885 with the invention of the modern technique known as “silvering” by chemist Justus von Liebig, did mirrors become more widespread. This process of backing sheet glass with a thin layer of silver has been refined and altered over the years, but it is still basically what we have today. Silvering involves a chemical reaction in which the nitrate ions in a silver nitrate solution attach themselves to another ion, leaving just the silver on the glass. This is then coated with protective paint.
CHOOSING YOUR REFLECTION
Today the most economical mirrors are made with aluminum, though the process is still called silvering. Cheaper, but it comes at a price. Silver mirrors reflect warmer red and yellow tones that flatter a person’s complexion, while aluminum mirrors reflect cool blue tones that are less likely to make you feel good about yourself.
Beyond the standard clear mirror, ultra clear mirrors use glass with a reduced iron content to eliminate the slight green tinge, and are great for fur salons and all-white interiors. For absolute clarity, first-surface mirrors have the reflective coating in front of the glass rather than behind it, so there’s no “ghosting” (the slight secondary reflection made on the glass rather than the reflective coating). Since the silvering substance is exposed, these mirrors are rather delicate. First-surface mirrors are used for camera lenses and optical applications, though designers and artists use them too.
Other than a good dose of confidence, the best way to control what you see in the mirror is with tint. Color is layered on the glass before being silvered, producing various effects and moods. Gold is used in restaurants to flatter the clientele, pink and peach mirrors are used in gyms and dressing rooms for flattery with a touch less seduction. Bronze, gray and black mirrors make dramatic architectural statements and more subtle reflections of people. Green mirrors are used for plant display areas, but make people look ill, and deeper blue mirrors are popular in Florida to create the illusion of coolness and water.
The charming scratches and cloudiness of old mirrors comes from deteriorating protective paint and the silver flaking off the glass. It is easy to have a mirror stripped and re-silvered by a professional so long as the glass is in good condition. Likewise, with a bit of nitric acid, a toothbrush and a good pair of goggles, you can strip off some of the protective backing and give a modern, well-silvered mirror the streaks, splatters and fogging of an aging Venetian masterpiece.