Monday, 15 March 2010

China alchemy

Was asked recently what china is made of. I glibly answered ‘Chinese’, but I knew what he was asking. I had no idea. Could you only get china from the Orient? No clue. Wait…I know that there’s famous porcelain from Saxon and even Bavaria. So what’s the story on china? You’re about to find out.

Since the 15th Century, Europeans wanted to find out how to make china. A charlatan/chemist’s assistant called Böttger met an alchemist in Berlin who gave him two ounces of a powder that could make the coveted material. He passed off as his own invention and immediately the powers that were attempted to corral him and obtain his alleged invention. By escaping them and going to Dresden, he thought he was safe. Little did he know that Augustus “the strong” only wanted him for his china as well. Once the small amount of powder was gone, he was imprisoned by the body-building monarch. Little Böttger convinced a jailer to let him use his jail cell as a laboratory.

Luckily for him, and for us Westerners, the Saxon countryside around Dresden is chock full of the two most important ingredients for making china ( china clay or kaolin & what’s called china stone). After experimenting with different amounts of these and other ingredients as well as firing time in the kiln, he was able to come upon a formula that recreated the thin, delicate, translucent variation that the West had not yet been able to produce. Eureka. And the rest was history? Not quite.

Although Saxon porcelain is known for it’s beauty, it’s not the only European sort. There’s no way the British would continue to drink out of German china if they could make their own. So they did. As did the French with their famous Sevre porcelain, as well as many others. But that’s for another post. How did this German discovery make its way across the channel. Without paying duties and tariffs? You’ll have to hold your horses to find that one out.

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