Intrigue, avarice, and human resolve may mark the cloak - and -dagger tale of early Meissen porcelain, but 300 years later, the lustrous ware remains a triumphant ode to enduring beauty and uncompromising quality.
THE LEGEND OF MEISSEN PORCELAIN SWIRLS AROUND THE QUEST TO unravel the secret formula for hard-paste porcelain in the West. First introduced in China during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), the porcelain was later exported to Europe where it became wildly popular. By the 17th century, Westerners were propelled to create their own ceramics, but the wily Chinese zealously guarded the precious formula. In the early 18th century, Augustus II (also known as Augustus the Strong, Iron Hand, Elector of Saxony, King of Poland, and Grand Duke of Lithuania) took matters into his own hands. Determined to sever the Chinese grip on porcelain production and create a lucrative enterprise for his subjects, the monarch supposedly kidnapped and virtually imprisoned 20-year-old alchemist Johann Friedrich Bottger, whom he thought brilliant enough to unlock the formula for the elusive "white gold."Minimizing Bottger's detention as an "encouraged residence," Augustus built an elaborate laboratory and kiln in Albrechtsburg Castle near the market town of Meissen, Germany, which sits above the Elbe River.
Six years later in 1708, with the aid of mathematician Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus, Bottger unraveled the mystery. This scientific triumph,
as well as the vital discovery ofrich deposits of kaolin (an essential ingredient) in Saxon soil, marked the birth of hard-paste porcelain production in Europe. The pair's initial success re-created somber reddish-brown stoneware almost identical to the Chinese pieces, which were then adapted into figurines, dishes, and portly teapots. Eventually, Asian influences were replaced by inspiration from Western art, engravings, mythology, and allegory.
Amazingly, Bottger's formula for hard-paste porcelain has remained essentially the same for three centuries, dictating exacting proportions of kaolin, quartz, and feldspar. After molding, drying, and initial firing, glazed products are fired again at high temperatures. Master painters with years of extensive training and lengthy apprenticeships, then apply intricate hand decoration. Each item is then authenticated on the bottom with the prestigious maker's mark of two crossed blue swords-the unmistakable Meissen symbol used since 1722.
In the beginning, Meissen's products were created to satisfy the fanciful
whims of monarchs who commissioned them, such as the menagerie of white porcelain animals and birds Augustus desired for his Japanese Palace on the banks of the Elbe. Soon, talented painters and modelers achieved celebrity status that distinguished many Meissen artists.
The factory constantly introduced new surprises, embracing the principle that novelty was key to maintaining interest, such as endearing shepherds, playful pets, and maidens dressed in swaying crinolines or lace costumes, which invariably spawned frenzied collecting crazes. Not surprisingly, the clamor for lavish dining services was equally important for the factory's lucrative repeat business. Meissen's Onion pattern, with its cobalt-blue motifs introduced in 1739, is still made today. "Amazing service sets, as well as furniture, compotes, trays, tea and coffee sets, figurines, and utensils, remain in strong demand," says Jamie Doerr, the research director of M.S. Rau Antiques in New Orleans, a leading resource for fine Meissen porcelain. "Meissen is revered for its level of artistry. If you look closely at the maidens and cherubs, and how each petal is crafted, it represents a sculptural quality you don't see with other manufacturers."
Throughout the company's history, exquisitely painted blowsy flowers appearing on all types of Meissen ware are so realistic, they almost exude a heady scent. Popular combinations include vibrant roses, lilies, and peonies with fruit, butterflies, and insects. Beguiling cupids and animals often encircled by airy, pierced borders became another Meissen trademark. Eventually the porcelain house invaded the preserve of the silversmith, as charming designs graced every imaginable collectible from snuffboxes, watches, clockfaces, and chandeliers, to dainty furniture such as vanities and dressing tables.
While maintaining a healthy respect for the past, Meissen is definitely rooted in the present. As the company sells products around the world, it has considered the varying tastes in different countries. "In Russia and Taiwan, for example, the people love traditional items with lots of decoration and gold. Our new dishes refer to today's needs, so we are offering different shaped bowls, as well as pasta and sushi plates," says Meissen Head of Communications Sandra Jaschke. "In a pragmatic vein, there is a strong demand for dishwasher-safe dishes in Europe, so we are focusing on that with new products too."
Limited-edition collections continue to be in demand, so the company started making more modern artwork "to continue our history with that sort of ingenuity," says Jaschke. "This spring Meissen will launch a modernized interpretation of their famous Onion pattern," she continues, "and every new item somehow refers to Meissen's history." It's a 300-year history steeped in tradition but focused as ever on the future, as any company that's been around for centuries knows that it must be.