The invention of European porcelain, one of the most valued and valuable commodities in 18th century Europe, was ironically a byproduct of the failed attempt to turn base metal into gold. This though was no runners-up prize. Porcelain was imported from China – where it had been invented centuries earlier – at immense cost. So sought after was porcelain that it was known as ‘white gold’, and European rulers competed for the glory (and wealth) that discovering its hidden secrets would bring.
The King or Prince who controlled the production of porcelain would be rich beyond their wildest dreams. Well, maybe not beyond the wildest dreams of the man who would eventually own the secret of porcelain. Augustus the Strong of Saxony was a man who, on his death-bed, confessed that, “all my life has been one ceaseless sin”. His pursuit of porcelain was pure avarice combined with the desire to make Saxony the most powerful state in the Holy Roman Empire.
It would fall to the alchemist and part-time charlatan, Johann Frederick Böttger, to do the actual inventing. Augustus believed the knowledge Böttger claimed to have was so valuable that he made him a prisoner, albeit a comfortable one, for twelve years. First in Dresden, where he was put to work trying to invent the Philosopher’s Stone, the magical substance that would turn base metal into gold, and Augustus into a very rich man.
In 1705, after four years and numerous failed attempts (and at least one failed escape attempt), Böttger announced that he would produce his first gold in 16 weeks. At the end of which, and presumably fearing for his life, he announced that although he had failed again, he would unearth the secret of porcelain instead. That may have saved his life, but it only meant a new prison, this time in Meissen where Böttger was held in the Albrechtsburg, a dramatic 15th century castle.
Here, in collaboration with Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus, European porcelain would be produced for the very first time. This discovery didn’t lead to Böttger gaining his freedom, after all he might sell his secrets to another European ruler. Augustus kept him prisoner for several more years. Tschirnhaus was almost certainly the real inventor of the wonderous white pottery but he died in 1708, allowing Böttger to claim it as his. Soon afterwards, Europe’s first porcelain factory started production in Meissen.
I first came across Böttger and the quest to invent European porcelain when I read The Arcanum: The Extraordinary True Story of the Invention of European Porcelain. I’ve been intending to visit Meissen ever since and, more importantly, the Meissen Porcelain Manufactory, the direct descendent of the one founded in 1710. Today, it’s located a couple of kilometres outside Meissen in a state-of-the-art factory where the still impossibly valuable ‘white gold’ is produced by hand to the very highest standards.
When I say ‘impossibly valuable’, I mean a €72,000 price tag for a porcelain vase filled with porcelain fruits. Seriously, who’s buying this stuff? Even the tea cups come in at a not entirely reasonable €69. Admittedly, some of the more elaborate pieces – and they are truly elaborate – can take months to make by highly skilled craftspeople with years of training and decades of experience. Which might justify the pupil-dilating cost of the items on display in the manufactory’s showrooms.
A ticket for the factory tour – actually a series of rooms where people perform the hand made processes – came with a €15 voucher for the shop. Until I learned how expensive everything was this seemed like a nice gesture. After the tour we went to the museum, where pieces sparkle under the lights. Here we learned that the formulas for 10,000 different porcelain colours are kept in a secure location, as are plaster moulds dating back 300 years, allowing the factory to reproduce ancient designs and colours.
I don’t really get the appeal of porcelain but its history, filled with deceit, intrigue and even murder, is fascinating. Afterwards, we headed off to Meissen to see where it all started.