For centuries, porcelain has been used to craft beautiful and important decorative works around the world. The earliest use of porcelain comes from the Shang Dynasty in China, where the art of glazing and firing porcelain evolved from early prototypes into the classic material we are familiar with today.
What are the types of porcelain?
Porcelain can be divided into three different types, each of which requires a unique crafting process. The earliest form was hard-paste, followed by soft-paste and later bone china.
The most popular type of porcelain is the original hard-paste first employed by Chinese ceramicists and later used around the world. What we consider true hard-paste porcelain has been dated as early as the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), where early examples took on a green hue and are now called celadon porcelain.
During the Tang Dynasty (618-907) important ceramic advancements were made, particularly the use of sancai (tri-colored) earthenware as well as pure white porcelain, only made possible through centuries of refinement in technique. While the most elaborate and detailed pottery pieces were kept for burials in order to accompany the deceased into their afterlife, everyday wares began to spread via the Silk Road across Central Asia. Porcelain dishes like the teacup above dates to a later period, but shows the famed blue and white style which became popular during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) and represents most people’s idea of porcelain today. In the 14th century, Chinese porcelain was introduced to Europeans, who were both amazed and stumped by its impressive qualities, inspiring the creation of soft-paste porcelain.
Soft PasteThe beautiful forms of Chinese porcelain were considered a great, rare luxury by Europeans, who also sought to create their own versions of the durable ceramic. However, duplicating the transparency and strength of Chinese ceramics appeared to be an impossible task. Without the knowledge of the correct mixture of materials (in particular, access to kaolin) or the higher temperatures required to solidify the porcelain, the resulting European attempts lacked either the strength or beauty of hard-paste porcelain. Some artists created beautiful soft-paste works that lacked durability, while others created strong, solid pieces missing the delicate features that distinguish porcelain as an art form.
Soft-paste porcelain was limited to a relatively short period as the Meissen factory in Germany was able to replicate hard-paste porcelain by 1710, and the factory kept the recipe secret from their competitors as long as possible. Crucial kaolin deposits in Limoges and Sèvres also made the production of hard-paste porcelain more accessible to Europeans, and the French crown supported the founding of the Sèvres porcelain factory which supplied many French monarchs with different types of wares of exceptional quality.
The above clock serves as just one example of the superior-quality pieces produced by Sèvres and includes ornate porcelain plaques accented by unglazed, biscuit porcelain. Anyone interested in collecting art can easily see the beauty and intense skill required to create masterful works like this, making any porcelain piece a stunning addition to any collection.
This type of porcelain is named for its unique composition, including animal bones ground into a powder, which is known as bone ash. The bone ash serves an important purpose by providing extra strength to the porcelain, allowing potters to create thinner pieces. The resulting mixture is fired at a slightly lower temperature than other types of porcelain, giving bone china an elegant, milky transparency. Similar to soft-paste porcelain, bone china was discovered by Englishman Thomas Frye in an attempt to recreate Chinese hard-paste porcelain. Despite its European origins, bone china has reached high levels of popularity and even surpassed hard-paste porcelain production in China today.
What is porcelain used for?
Porcelain has served as tableware or decoration in households since ancient times. Due to its impressive durability, many everyday objects from tea cups to serving dishes have been crafted of porcelain.
Just because porcelain has been used and treasured for centuries doesn’t mean there isn’t room for innovation within the medium, whether in the types of objects created or unusual color palettes. The colorful, ornate details above are part of a larger mirror, and demonstrate the creative possibilities of porcelain.
Is porcelain a type of ceramic?Yes, porcelain is one of many materials used in ceramics, which also includes earthenware and stoneware. One easy way to tell the difference between porcelain and other ceramics is transparency, as porcelain is translucent rather than opaque. If you hold a ceramic item up to a light source and notice light glowing through, you can be certain the piece is porcelain. However, painting or some glazes can limit the transparency of porcelain, so this method is not always accurate.
An even simpler way to identify a ceramic piece is to flip it over and examine any unglazed portion - if you notice a grainy, coarse texture the item is stoneware or earthenware rather than porcelain. In general, porcelain pieces are thinner, lighter and stronger than any other ceramic, explaining why they are so treasured by collectors.
What classifies antique porcelain?The descriptor “antique” can be a confusing classification when considering the centuries of porcelain production, which continues into the present. What counts as a true antique? For porcelain and many other decorative arts like antique glass, an object over 100 years old can be defined as an antique.
Savage, G. , Sullivan, . Michael and Silbergeld, . Jerome. "Chinese pottery." Encyclopedia Britannica, August 24, 2022. https://www.britannica.com/art/Chinese-pottery.