The beginnings have the ring of mythology: Alchemist Johann Friedrich Böttger told Saxon King August the Strong that he could turn lead into gold.
The canny monarch locked Böttger up, telling him he'd go free when he produced the gold he promised. More than a decade of desperate experimentation later, Böttger still hadn't managed to transmute metals.
But in 1710, Böttger's basement experiments resulted in something unexpected: A hard, durable, brilliant white porcelain. The result was a profitable solution to an old problem. Since the 1300s, porcelain was a luxury product that had to be imported from China at staggering cost. As exotic drinks like coffee, hot chocolate and tea became fashionable among Europe's aristocrats, demand for porcelain from Asia became stronger and stronger.
By accident, August the Strong's captive alchemist had given the king a lock on porcelain production. Böttger was dispatched to a castle in nearby Meissen, where the king could keep an eye on him as he churned out what soon came to be called "white gold."
Three hundred years later, the captive alchemist's discovery is being celebrated with exhibitions in Meissen, Dresden and Berlin. On Saturday, the anniversary will be marked with a show looking at Meissen's early origins at the Albrechtsburg Castle. The same day, the porcelain phenomenon will also be showcased at the Japanese Palace in Dresden in an exhibit titled: “Triumph of the Blue Swords: Meissen Porcelain for Nobility and Bourgeoisie, 1710-1815.”
“Meissen embodied the highest form of European porcelain in its first hundred years, despite fierce competition from new manufacturers" says Dresden State Museum curator Ulrich Pietsch, the curator of the exhibit.
On Sunday, a companion exhibit at Berlin's Ephraim Palace museum will showcase the impact of Meissen porcelain on those European competitors, with products from more than 50 different porcelain manufacturers from all over Europe on display in downtown Berlin.
Saxony's August the Strong was such a porcelain fan that he had an entire two-story Japanese palace built in Dresden to house his collection. Porcelain from China and Japan was on the first floor, while the stuff coming out of his factory just down the river was on the top. His crossed-swords seal adorned every piece of Meissen craftsmanship, creating one of Europe's oldest trademarks.
Today, Meissen is Germany's second-best known luxury brand, behind Porsche. Collectors are as likely to snap up pieces as investments as they are for tableware. “Our limited works of porcelain art, compared to gold, are not just impressive in terms of sustained value, but in addition they have an intrinsic aesthetic value which makes them treasured works of art,” says Meissen CEO Christian Kurtzke.
And the brand – perhaps best known for slightly fussy figurines and elaborate decoration, has made moves in the past few years to broaden its appeal, courting international markets and a new generation of luxury consumers with sushi plates, espresso cups and pasta plates.
For those with a passion for porcelain but without the money for a complete set of their own, the Meissen factory is a short train ride from downtown Dresden. Strolling through the factory museum on a rainy spring day, I got an eye-opening look at the craftsmanship that still goes into each piece of Meissen porcelain.
It turns out that three centuries after Böttger Meissen's “white gold” is still an emphatically local product. White, crumbly kaolin clay is mined from a pit near the town, reputedly the smallest mine in Europe. It is then mixed with a combination of quartz and feldspar according to a secret recipe dating back centuries. The result is first fired at 950 degrees Celsius, then again at 1400 degrees. The high temperatures create the porcelain's distinct, glossy exterior shine and dense, durable consistency.
After a look through the outlet store, I joined a group for a tour of the Meissen production process. Because tours aren't allowed on the factory floor for quality-control reasons – a bit of dust or hair landing on a plate or a momentary distraction could ruin hours of work – there's a special demonstration area. In the first station, a man shapes cups by hand, using a special wood mould to individually press each one. In the next, an embosser hand-forms the individual tiny flower petals that adorn the most rococo Meissen vases.
At the last station, painter Birgit Duwe braces her arm on a special rest and paints the Meissen swords logo onto the back of a sample plate with accuracy and ease born of countless repetitions. The paint she uses is a dull greenish-black. During firing, she tells me, the paint will turn to Meissen's trademark blue in the heat of the kiln.
In a world where automation and outsourcing seem to rule and robots do everything from cut fabric to assemble cars, it stuns me that there's still room for such specialised skills on a mass scale. When she's done with her design, I ask her where she learned the job.
It turns out the only place to learn to make Meissen porcelain is … Meissen. The company's craftspeople all apprentice in-house before beginning their careers.
“It takes three or four years of training, then another five or six to really get good,” she says. “That's why we have a saying: Once a Meissen worker, always a Meissen worker.”