Over the centuries mankind has always figured vessels for drinking, everything from stone to metal to leather to ceramics and not necessarily in that order. However, it wasn’t until Marco Polo in his excursions to the Far East brought back Chinese Tea and its porcelain drinking cups that porcelain became the rage. Here is a little walk down memory lane.
Starting in the 16th c. England and European factories searched and competed for the secret to making Chinese porcelain. The first successful attempts came from Venice where glass was used as the fusing agent in clay by Francesco de Medici. It wasn’t the Chinese porcelain but it would do. It is known today as “Soft Paste Porcelain” or artificial porcelain. It didn’t matter . One could drink tea out of the cups and pour from the teapots. As these soft paste wares were extremely fragile and easily tea stained, the hunt was still on for the more durable yet elusive Chinese secret! In the meantime, the “glaze” on the wares kept the market going with Chantilly (France), Majolica and Deft leading the market.
By the 17th c. the East India Companies were heavily importing the Chinese pieces which further pushed the market and gave a new push to discover how to make the “real” porcelain. However, in France soft paste porcelain remained the characteristic French porcelain through the 18th c. The famous Sèvres factory didn’t start making “true” (Chinese) porcelain until 1769, although they were still making soft paste until 1804. At the same time England was experimenting with other ingredients in order to make soft paste more durable. Substances like soapstone and bone ash were used in various degrees to try to achieve the same hardness as the Chinese. As a collector if one looks on the bottom of a teacup and it says, “Bone China”, it means 30% to 45% of the vessel is made up of bone, usually cow bone. However, Spode’s formula calls for human bone ash and is still used today by Spode.
The breakthrough for European potters came when two German alchemists, Johann Friedrich Bottger and Walther Von Tschirnhaus, discovered the secret of kaolin in Chinese porcelain for themselves. A local source of kaolin clay was then discovered close to the German city of Meissen and the first European hard paste porcelain, containing kaolin cay and alabaster, was manufactured there in 1710. Alabaster was later replaced by feldspar (a common mineral that makes up approximately 60% of the earth’s crust and also used as part of the Chinese formula) and quartz. These, and Kaolinite are still important ingredients for true porcelains. The Germans kept the kaolin secret to themselves and potters elsewhere on the continent went on experimenting while the trade with China continued to grow where by 1741 over a million pieces of Chinese porcelain were brought into European ports .1 The secret finally officially came out in 1771 when the book, L’art de la Porcelaine was published. Factories all over Europe sprang up and the rest was history!