The History of Porcelain
Elegant dishes are as essential to fine, 21st-century dining as they were during the late 18th century, when luxury was almost a religion. But long before names such as Flora Danica, Wedgewood, and Royal Copenhagen became synonymous with beautiful porcelain dinnerware, mankind had already invested thousands of years, through trial and error, in the art of using the humblest of materials—clay—to create useful vessels for cooking, serving, eating, and storing food.
The concept of firing objects made of clay is about 30,000 years old, as evidenced by the fertility figurine “Venus,” discovered at Dolni Vestonice in present-day Czech Republic. But the earliest known pots and utility items, found in the Yuchanyan cave in Southern China, are believed to date from about 18,000 years ago. By 10,000 B.C.E., the art of pottery-making was well underway in China and Japan.
But perhaps the turning point in one of mankind’s oldest and most useful crafts came around 4,500 B.C.E., with the invention of the potter’s wheel in Mesopotamia. Whether earthenware, stoneware, or porcelain, the potter’s wheel enabled craftsmen to create, with relative ease, perfectly round objects.
Of all the materials used for pottery, porcelain is the most revered. A relatively translucent ceramic material, porcelain is comprised of kaolin, petuntse or other clays, ground glass substances, soapstone, bone ash, etc., and must be fired at extremely high temperatures in order for its ingredients to vitrify. The name “porcelain” derives from the Latin “porcellana,” meaning “cowrie shell,” a translucent shell of a sea snail.
While the making of porcelain dates back about 3,000 years in China, porcelain became popular during the Tang Dynasty (618 – 906 C.E.), famous for its white porcelain, much of which was exported to the Islamic world.
The introduction of porcelain to the West, however, is attributed to Marco Polo, who returned to Italy in 1295 with a small, white vase, today preserved in the San Marco Treasury. Then in the late 1400s, Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama reintroduced the luxurious product to Europeans, with the vast network of the East India Company facilitating porcelain’s spread across Europe. By the end of the 15th century, porcelain had been dubbed “white gold” by Europeans, and merchants of Genoa, Pisa, Venice, and Portugal sold porcelain goods to an ever-increasing customer-base. But the fabrication of the “white gold” from the East remained a heavily guarded secret by the Chinese, leaving the West desperately trying to crack the porcelain code. It was not until 1575, when research supported by Francesco I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, yielded a soft, white clay containing powdered feldspar, calcium phosphate, wollastonite, and quartz, that the West achieved its first breakthrough. The brain behind the discovery was Bernardo Buontalenti. And the products made therefrom were called “Medici porcelain.” When Francisco died in 1587, however, the venture, which was never commercial, came to and end. In 1588, the inventory compiled after Francesco’s death listed 310 pieces, 60 or 70 of which are known to have survived.
But in 1708, chemist von Tschirnhauser and alchemist Johann Bottger discovered a way to make a hard-paste porcelain that allowed for European craftsmen to produce porcelain products on par with the Chinese. And two years later, in 1710, Poland’s King Augustus II established the first hard-paste porcelain factory in Europe in Meissen. Within 50 years, there were porcelain factories throughout Europe, especially in Vienna, Venice, and parts of France. And with the concurrent demand for teas from Asia, coffee from Africa and Arabia, and chocolate from the New World, there was an increase in demand for vessels from which to drink those culture-transforming beverages.