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Meissen Chymistry

Roald Hoffmann

Crystals of Porphyry and Borax

The story of this rediscovery of porcelain, Böttger’s story, is told beautifully in Janet Gleeson's 1998 book Arcanum. She cites an emotional poem that Böttger wrote to Augustus late in 1709:

The King will yearn for golden fruit,
Which the weak hand yet cannot present.
It puts but crystals of porphyry and borax
Before the King's throne in place of such sacrifices.
Yes, the hand extends even the heart, in vessels of porcelain.

This rings true. Böttger was caught. I sense from the poem that he would have liked to get out of the alchemist's bind and rest on his great practical synthesis, the making of the translucent "white gold." But he was not allowed to do so. Although the porcelain was of immense value and eventually contributed to the King’s coffers, it took time to establish a market for it. Meanwhile Augustus did not give up his dream for gold, and Böttger remained a prisoner. Time and again he was pressed to make good on his promises of making gold, and he finally staged a "successful" transmutation in 1713. Böttger was freed in the end, even ennobled. But he was ill and exhausted. He died in 1719, the year porcelain was first made outside of Meissen. It's not easy to keep an industrial secret.

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