Fake It Until You Make It

To follow up with last post, why was Chinese porcelain so precious? It was simply because Westerners did not know how to make this crisp white, durable yet light-weighted material. You may think it is not a big deal since porcelain can be found everywhere now, but seven hundred years ago, porcelain was absolutely a high tech product that represented the prestigious craftsmanship of a country.   

The secret of making porcelain was a type of clay called Kaolin (wikipedia), which was first used in mass production in Jingdezhen, China, in the 14th century. With the help of Kaolin, objects were able to obtain a waterproof and fine texture. When placing porcelain under the light, the body was translucent. It was less chunky than regular stoneware but as the same time remained strong and did not chip easily. In many cases, this exotic and limited product even replaced gold and silver in the market. 

Porcelain teacup by ceramic artist Dong Quanbin. Photo from www.kaolin.org

Porcelain teacup by ceramic artist Dong Quanbin. Photo from www.kaolin.org

If you looked at the map of China, Jingdezhen was located in the inner mainland, which was not accessible by foreign traders at the time. Foreigners normally were not allowed to enter the inner mainland. Most of them remained in the port areas while local Chinese middlemen would be their business representatives. Thus, the secret of making porcelain was not revealed for quite a long time. China retained this advantage over Europe for several centuries. 

Map of China (detail)

Map of China (detail)

Jingdezhen in Qing Dynasty (1644-1912)

Jingdezhen in Qing Dynasty (1644-1912)

Europeans had been relentless experimenting with how to make real porcelain. Anything that might make stonewares white, such as egg shells or lime, they would put in the clay. The Medici family was one of the few pioneers who gathered many scientists and workers together in order to figure out how to make porcelain. They successfully made a translucent white clay body, which looked like Chinese blue-and-white porcelain. However, because the firing temperature didn't reach as high as porcelain did, it was not considered as real porcelain. 

Ewer, 1575-1587(made), a soft paste "Medici porcelain"

Ewer, 1575-1587(made), a soft paste "Medici porcelain"

As I mentioned in the previous post, Delftware was another imitation of Chinese blue-and-white porcelain. Instead of making a white clay body, Deftware was actually off-white earthware covered with white glaze. This porcelain knock off did win a significant portion of the market but the value was nothing compared to authentic Chinese porcelain due to the disparity of technique. 

Dish with figure in a landscape, late 17th century, Delftware

Dish with figure in a landscape, late 17th century, Delftware

Plate with carp, 14th century, porcelain

Plate with carp, 14th century, porcelain

In 1708, after over three thousand experiments, German alchemist Johann Friedrich Böttger successfully discovered the secret of making porcelain in Meissen, Germany. Kaolin was found in one of the shipments of minerals in his lab. It was proved to be suitable to make porcelain. Four hundred years after China invented porcelain, Europe began its new era of porcelain production 

Image on a stamp printed in Germany, dedicated to the 300th anniversary of porcelain production in Germany

Image on a stamp printed in Germany, dedicated to the 300th anniversary of porcelain production in Germany

In 1748, English potter Thomas Frye further developed the original porcelain by adding animal bone ashes, mostly cow, to his formula and invented what is widely now known as bone china. This new porcelain is much whiter, stronger and lighter than the original Chinese porcelain. Later Josiah Spode finalized the formula and brought bone china into industrial production in his Spode factory. This porcelain was soon accepted by the market and became one of the most popular items in people's home. 

Soup plate, 1880, bone china

Soup plate, 1880, bone china

With the massive production in Europe, porcelain became more affordable. For example, people could easily purchase a piece with one shilling in England. The mystique of porcelain had fallen off but its legacy remained. It was no longer a privilege only wealthy classes could enjoy anymore. It appeared in everyone's home and changed people's lifestyle generation by generation. 

Author: Michele Xiaoyun Fan