For centuries, the delicate splendor of Chinese porcelain bedazzled European royalty. Carried by camel caravans and merchant vessels across deserts and seas, porcelain rarities were among the most treasured possessions of Europe’s sumptuous royal homes. A symbol of affluence, porcelain was often called white gold, but the word itself is of humble origin. It derives from the Italian word porcellana meaning ‘of a sow’ – a nickname given to cowrie shells, whose pearly sheen resembles translucent and fragile porcelain wares.
The Italian explorer Marco Polo used this word to describe the pottery he saw in China. A closely guarded secret of the Chinese, the porcelain formula remained a mystery in Europe for over four hundred years. Noble patrons set up laboratories to reveal the secret of porcelain’s seductive translucency and many imitations were made, but the coveted recipe remained elusive.
The first true European hard-paste porcelain was made in Saxony in 1710 when, under the patronage of King Augustus II, a manufacturing facility in Meissen began to turn out beautiful pieces. The porcelain formula was jealously protected, but unlike the Chinese who protected the secret formula for centuries, the Meissen manufacturers were able to retain the monopoly for less than a decade.
After an early case of industrial espionage, the secret spread quickly. The Vienna porcelain factory opened in 1718 and other important centers soon followed. The eighteenth century became Europe’s century of porcelain. Presented to kings, statesmen and ambassadors, elaborate porcelain services were proudly displayed at palace functions as the European nobility’s dining rituals became more and more extravagant.