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HOME > PAST ISSUE > July-August 2004 > Article Detail

MARGINALIA

Meissen Chymistry

Roald Hoffmann

My Precious

Merchants first brought Chinese porcelain to Europe overland. And travelers told stories of how it was made. So Marco Polo wrote:

[In the city of Tin-gui …] cups or bowls and dishes of porcelain-ware are manufactured. The process was explained to be as follows. They collect a certain kind of earth, as it were, from a mine, and laying it in a great heap, suffer it to be exposed to the wind, the rain, and the sun, for thirty or forty years, during which time it is never disturbed. By this it becomes refined and fit for being wrought into the vessels above mentioned. Such colours as may be thought proper are then laid on, and the ware is afterwards baked in ovens or furnaces.

The manufacture of ceramics was well developed in medieval and Renaissance Europe. Yet all attempts to replicate porcelain failed, leaving a legacy of ceramics that imitated the whiteness (or celadon-like coloration), or the hardness, or the translucency of true porcelain. But never all qualities together. Seventeenth-century merchants fanned the ardor for porcelain through the East India trade that brought Asian wares to Europe. As a result, if one could wait three years, one could have any pattern made in fine porcelain. I have seen a Swedish plate in which the European designer's words of instruction were faithfully replicated in classic, cobalt-blue underglaze—the potters in China had treated the instructions as the pattern.





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