Belleek is nestled in an area of breathtaking beauty known as the County Fermanagh. The tiny town is most famous, however, for the beauty of its porcelain which has been heralded as the finest, thinnest ever made. Today, collectors around the world, seek out pieces from this legendary pottery, though early wares have become increasingly difficult to find.
This legendary region had been blessed with both great natural resources and a small population whose skills as scholars and craftsmen had far outweighed their abilities as swordsmen for hundreds of years. Surprisingly, it was a devastating event, however, that led to the creation of something so beautiful, it rivaled even its spectacular surroundings.
In 1845, Ireland found itself in the grips of the Great Famine. By 1848, more than a million people had died, and many more fled for their lives. Belleek, like the rest of the country, was on the brink of ruin, its population decimated by starvation. Their salvation came in a most unlikely manner.
The town of Belleek was founded in 1610 by English nobles who later sold their estate to the Caldwell family. In 1849 John Caldwell Bloomfield inherited that estate, and upon arriving in Belleek was horrified at the suffering and devastation caused by the famine.
As fate would have it, Bloomfield was an amateur mineralogist with a particular interest in ceramics. Desperate to find a way to bring Belleek and its people back to prosperity, Bloomfield surveyed his land and found that it was rich in feldspar, kaolin, flint and waterpower...critical ingredients in the production of fine porcelain. Bloomfield vowed then to build a pottery that would employ his tenants and put Ireland on the map as a center of fine porcelain production.
Bloomfield faced two critical challenges, money and talent. His claim that his clay was the finest in the world was proven in 1853 at the Dublin International Exhibition, when the Worcester Porcelain Co. won highest honors for a dinner service made using Belleek clay. Fittingly enough, Bloomfield found his future partner Robert Armstrong at the Worcester factory who in turn introduced him to a financial banker, Dublitier, David McBirney. With money secured, and talent forthcoming, the pottery at Belleek was underway and by 1871, their earthenware and porcelain wares had already garnered medals and accolades at the Dublin Exhibition.
Queen Victoria was so taken by the ethereal beauty of this unique, and luminous porcelain, she commissioned many pieces for her private collection. The Prince of Wales and the English nobility predictably followed suit and the Belleek pottery soon found themselves fashionable the world over.
True to their vision, the founders poured money into the development of their unique brand of wares. Bloomfield had been correct in his assessment of the clay at Belleek. It was so pure and pliable, artisans were able to create the look of spun sugar, designs that seemed too fragile to touch. But, this impossibly thin porcelain with its trademark pearly iridescence was deceptively strong and proved ideal for creating pieces of incredible complexity and beauty.
The Pottery's efforts had paid off. Irish porcelain was famous and their books were filled with orders from around the world. The people of this tiny town were on their way to true prosperity.
The first of many tragedies struck in 1882 when McBirney died leaving his interests to a son who wanted no part of the business. Despite Armstrong's noble efforts to keep control of the factory, his untimely death in 1884 spelled the end for the original Belleek factory.
Today, the Belleek factory remains in operation, having changed hands several times over the years. Collectors around the world continue to be enamored by this lovely porcelain, though the works that heralded from the pottery's earliest days remain the most spectacular. Those early pieces bearing a "Black Mark" (of which there are three distinct periods) are most sought after by serious collectors, with fine examples becoming increasingly more scarce. Many later pieces can also be extremely rare and those exhibiting high-quality workmanship are also highly collectible.
Finally, a word about the incredible, world-famous baskets produced by the Belleek factory. Introduced in 1865 by William Henshall, whose name has been lent to these wonderful creations, the Belleek baskets became a symbol of the Pottery's commitment to excellence. Bordered with amazingly detailed flowers and vines, the Belleek basket is among the most difficult of all porcelain pieces to produce. And, because of their very nature, early Belleek baskets in excellent condition are indeed true rarities.