Royal PastBefore the 18th century, the French monarchy was well aware that both Italian and German porcelain makers were producing higher quality pieces than French porcelain factories. In an effort to change the status quo, King Louis XV, at the behest of his mistress Madame de Pompadour, bought and relocated a small porcelain workshop in Vincennes, to the town of Sèvres in 1756. Sèvres, on the banks of the Seine, proved to be the perfect location for the factory’s relocation. Both King Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour, had bold ambitions to create the most luxurious and fine porcelain ever produced, and what resulted was a triumph.
Today, Sèvres porcelain is still heralded as some of the finest antique pottery ever produced, serving as much more than just decoration. Despite centuries of political changes, the Sèvres porcelain factory is still in production today. True to their roots, they are loyal to the antique recipes, methods, technique, craftsmanship and artistic collaborations that made them the king of porcelain. Please enjoy this peek into the world of Sèvres, a world that changed antique porcelain, glass, metal and art collection as we know it.
Revolution and RebirthIn the centuries after its founding, the porcelain factory remained an important symbol of French excellence and resilience. Throughout the political turmoil of 1789-1799, Sèvres never closed its doors. After Napoleon put an end to the confusion and bloodshed, he appointed Alexandre Brongniart, a well-known chemist, to direct the factory to new heights.
As an enlightenment thinker, Brongniart improved and stabilized Sèvres finances, readily encouraged competition, embraced the influences of other cultures, applied new and innovative scientific techniques to the art of porcelain, all whilst remaining devoted to the power of logic, science and the human will. During Brongniart’s 47 years of leadership, the Sèvres factory became the preeminent producer of European porcelain; a title they undoubtably still hold today.
So how did they do it?
Hard-PasteIn 1768, Sèvres researchers discovered kaoline, an essential material to make hard porcelain paste. With an eye for outmaneuvering competition, Brongniart abolished all production of the lesser quality soft paste porcelain. He even destroyed all poor quality or broken Sèvres products that remained in the factory. Brongniart knew that hard-paste porcelain was not only the finer material, but also the future of all luxury porcelain production.
Scientific InnovationRemarkably, Sèvres’ 260-year-old original kilns are still in use today. Although Sèvres kilns are now electronically monitored, they are still heated to exactly 1,380 degrees Celsius and oxygen is reduced. Unlike most modern porcelain manufactories, Sèvres does not use industrial techniques. Because they prefer to innovate in the areas of chemistry, art and techniques, all production is still done by hand. According to current Sèvres factory director, Romane Sarfati, the closely-held secrets of Sevres' innovative craftsmanship are passed from generation to generation. The white, transparent, translucent, delicate and fine porcelain remains as masterful today as it was in the 18th century.
Artist CollaborationThe Sèvres factory not only established its own excellence with paste, firing and shaping, they also set a precedent of collaborating with the finest artists of their day. As an artist, receiving a position as a Sèvres artist was both highly sought after and important. Artists such as Rodin, Boucher and Duplessis all helped the Sèvres factory reach new levels of artistic elegance. True to their roots, contemporary artists such as Yan Peiming, Andrea Branzi, Michele de Lucchi, Ettore Sottasss and Nicholas Buffe have all worked on important modern Sèvres exhibitions.
Regal FavoritesAlthough Britain and France suffered from their fair share of disagreements, both French and British monarchs were in agreement that the prestige of Sèvres porcelain was worth the steep price tag. In the 18th and 19th century, Britain was undeniably the superior exporter of manufactured goods. Despite this apparent superiority, France, thanks largely to their Sèvres factory and strict guild system remained the chief exporter of luxury among all the European porcelain factories.
Understanding the Marks
All porcelain produced by the Sèvres factory is stamped, usually on the underside of the piece, with its signature “Sèvres Blue” mark, two Ls ‘interlaced’ with each other, normally with a letter inside. The letter on the inside of the double-L mark is there to show the year in which the piece was made. Sèvres pieces may also feature the signature of the painter or decorator. This was particularly common with porcelain vases. See examples of these decorative arts below:
How to Spot a FakeBecause of its prestige and value, con-artists have been trying to “fake” Sèvres pieces for centuries. Here are some tells so you can spot these fraudulent items yourself when inspecting different types of porcelain:
- A badly painted scene
- A gaudy green color
- Metal gilt that is too bright and thickly painted, gilt is made with a distinctive light touch
- Re-fired and later decorated Sèvres pieces. You can usually tell well porcelain has been re-fired because there will be unwanted black specks on the design.
How to find SèvresThankfully, much of Sèvres porcelain has been incredibly well preserved and displayed. If you would like to make a pilgrimage to Sèvres, France, you will be delighted to find the working Sèvres factory and museum. Travel beyond this small town and you can find Sèvres pieces in some of the most-visited and largest museums of art in Europe: the Louvre, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Hermitage Gallery.
How to start collecting
When it comes to collecting art, anyone who has a taste for the exceptional should consider collecting Sèvres antique porcelain. If this is you, you will need to embody a few key characteristics to understand that these pieces are more than just decorative objects:
- Patience. Sèvres pieces, especially of well preserved quality, do not often come to market. Collectors have luck with museum trades, auction houses, and through high-end antique dealerships.
- An eye for history and elegance. Not every Sèvres piece carries the same royal provenance. Make sure to do your own research and find pieces that connect to history that moves you.