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History of Porcelain

Updated: Jun 6, 2019

The 13th century Italian explorer MARCO POLO  was the first European to see a piece of Chinese porcelain and he called it `Porcella` as it reminded him of a Mediterranean sea-shell. It took another 80 years before de first piece of Chinese porcelain was brought to Europe. The Chinese were keeping porcelain a closely guarded secret.  They had already made porcelain in the 6th century. During the next 300 years all European countries tried to find the right ingredients for making valuable porcelain but without success. All seafaring nations sailed from Europe to the Far East to buy this `WHITE GOLD'.

The ships could dock in the harbour of Kanton but no one was allowed to leave the ships. So the buying had to be done from small vessels which brought the wares to the ships. The European merchants were later allowed to rent a small piece of land at the mouth of the Yellow River so trading could be at least done on land.

The tall ships ferried drawings on paper as special requests for the Chinese craftsmen to make. They found the subjects bizarre and difficult to make. Wealthy families in the west wanted their family crests on all their tableware they had bought. A good way of showing of to the visiting diners. It came at a price but the Europeans had to have it!! During the next centuries the imports were on a large scale. Some 840.000 pieces and increasing year by year.

And so it went on ………

The Chinese traders accepted only gold coins.  The monarchs in the West were the main clients and they soon ran out of gold coins! Until one King of Saxony in Germany AUGUSTUS THE STRONG who was one of the largest collectors, took it upon himself to find someone who could disclose the secret to this WHITE GOLD. That person was a 24 year old alchemist Johan Friedrich Boettger. Augustus had him kidnapped and he was locked away in a laboratory of a Dresden castle in 1706.

Boettger was forced to keep experimenting with different kinds of clay and he was not allowed to talk to anyone and he was kept behind locked doors until he came up with the right formula. Boettger suffered terribly by the searing heat of the kiln.. His eyesight was affected he had blisters and his hair had long been scorched.

The windows were blocked off and one day the heat was so intense that the brickwork of the kiln exploded. Two years on and Boettger did produce the first piece of porcelain.  He had mixed kaolin clay ground quartz and felspar in the right proportions..

In 1709 the King announced the foundation of his Porcelain Manufactory in the town of Meissen but Boettger`s name was never mentioned. The workers couldn`t make head or tail of what they were ordered to do.  Boettger was the only person who knew the complete process. In the end he couldn`t keep his secret and told an alchemist friend. Two years later a manufactory was founded in Vienna  !

By 1740 more and more porcelain factories were founded throughout Europe.

Chelsea was the first in England in 1750.

       The manufactory of WHITE GOLD was no longer a secret!


If you are interested in Porcelain and are based in or around Oxfordshire, Beatrix Forbes also has a cabinet (Cabinet Number 1) in the store 'Antiques on High' - Located in The High Street Oxford or you can visit their website where you can place orders online!

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