Porcelain is not a word that immediately brings to mind tales of intrigue, imprisonment and retribution, but like any luxury good, its history is rife with such stories. Known as “white gold” in the 18th century, porcelain was once regarded as one of the most highly prized commodities in the world, especially among the upper classes. Yet, while the secret to making hard-paste porcelain had long been held by Chinese makers, its recipe was highly sought after by European manufacturers. Read on to learn how one German porcelain maker - Meissen - discovered the secret to making porcelain.
A Brief History
In order to better understand the importance of Meissen’s discovery, a brief history of the porcelain trade is in order. Hard-paste porcelain is differentiated from its cousin, soft-paste porcelain, primarily based on firing temperature. Hard-paste porcelain is fired at a very high temperature, and the result is a piece that is far less likely to crack. The secret to producing hard-paste porcelain was discovered by the Chinese during the 7th or 8th century, and by the mid-16th century, the product was heavily exported throughout Europe. It proved to be a huge money maker for the Chinese, and demand among the European elite for hard-paste porcelain was so high that it became known as “white gold.”
During this period, European royal courts soon sought to develop their own hard-paste porcelain pieces, rather than paying a fortune for them on the market. Thus, the story of Meissen’s foray into the hard-paste porcelain world begins.
The Young Alchemist
In 1701, the king of Prussia issued a demand for the extradition of an apothecary’s apprentice from Wittenberg to Berlin. The apprentice had fled there in order to avoid the attention of the king - word had spread that he possessed the knowledge for making gold by transmutation, a skill which would have made him invaluable to the Prussian court. Rather than cooperate with the king’s demands, Augustus the Strong, the Elector of Saxony, not only refused to send the young apprentice back to Berlin, but also immediately had him held prisoner in Fürstenberg Palace. He wanted to use the 19-year-old alchemist - Johann Friederich Böttger – for his own gain.
Böttger was thus imprisoned, though he enjoyed higher living standards under the hospitality of Augustus the Strong than he ever had when he was free. Still, he knew there would be dire consequences if his inability to make gold was ever discovered.
Eventually, he was able to escape from the palace, but was quickly recaptured in Bohemia. Once again a prisoner of the Saxon court, he was sent back to Dresden, and from there to the Albrechtsburg in Meissen. Luckily, there he fell under the supervision of the Dresden scientist Ehrenfried Walter von Tschirnhaus, who recognized the futility of his task. Rather than alchemy, he brought the promising young scientist under his wing, and set him to the task of discovering the secret to hard-paste porcelain.
Cracking the Porcelain Code
It proved an arduous task, made more difficult by the fact that Böttger’s work was interrupted in 1706. Augustus feared that the Treaty of Altranstädt between Saxony and Sweden would force him to hand over his alleged gold-maker to Charles XII of Sweden, and thus he had him secreted away to a fortress on the Königstein. Disappointed to be torn away from his work, Böttger was nonetheless resigned to his further imprisonment.
Nearly a year later, Böttger was suddenly removed to Dresden, where a porcelain laboratory had been installed in the dungeons of some fortifications near the river Elbe. Though the kilns there were much larger than those at Meissen, the firing experiments also brought greater risk. The dungeon offered poor ventilation and the air was often filled with smoke and grit. Still, Böttger was determined to succeed, for both his own satisfaction and his personal safety.
His dedication paid off, and by early 1708 Böttger’s experiments were yielding positive results, mainly thanks to von Tschirnhaus' earlier research. Informed of the progress, the king visited the secret laboratory – Böttger’s records from that day, January 15, 1708, state that three of the seven firings resulted in porcelain that was both white and transparent. It was the official birth of European hard-paste porcelain.
The secret was a Saxon white clay known as kaolin, which was discovered in Erzgebirge around 1708. When Bötgger mixed kaolin with china stone, known as petuntse, and flint, he was able to successfully produce a material that possessed the same strength and whiteness of Chinese hard-paste porcelain.
The discovery was not announced until the process was down to a perfect science and, perhaps more importantly, plans were underway for a full-scale porcelain manufactory. Augustus wanted to ensure he could cash in on his young scientist's discovery of hard paste porcelain. Almost exactly two years later, news of the forthcoming Meissen porcelain factory - the first in production of European hard-paste porcelain - was announced to the western world.
In spite of his success, Böttger remained imprisoned by Augustus until 1714, perhaps due to some lingering resentment that he never did produce gold as once promised. Böttger died shortly after his release in 1719 – he was still in his early 30s, but years working in the kiln took a toll on his body. His legacy, however, lived on in the Meissen factory (or Meissen porcelain factory) which quickly began production of a wide variety of products that were delivered to royal courts and added to the royal collection and porcelain collection around Europe. To this day, Meissen china and porcelain is among the most coveted ever made.
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