Porcelain, the ‘white gold’, a precious material originating in China, brought to Europe by Marco Polo, and whose recipe was a royal secret for many years. It is distinguished by being the only one of the fired earth family to have a translucent quality, and when tapped it rings like crystal. Its composition was discovered in Europe by an alchemist trying to make gold, and after a final firing at 1400˚C for 24 hours it becomes incredibly hard, durable, pure white, and of course beautiful.
These are some of the facts I learned in Limoges today. As part of their workshop, led by Sam Baron of Fabrica, the porcelain group spent a day listening and learning instead of making. As we were guided round the factories of Bernardaud and Royal Limoges, with the exception of witnessing the raw materials dug out of the ground, we saw the entire process from a messy lump of clay (or powder) to immaculate shop floor.
One of the most striking aspects of this industry is that even though as many elements as possible are mechanised, a great deal of the process can still only be done by a well-trained hand and eye, and as such haven’t changed for over 100 years. The porcelain shrinks during firing, but not necessarily in a uniform way, which makes designing pieces by computer often irrelevant – producing the original requires the intuition and experience of the head designer. In the factory where the pieces are cast, at the end of the production line are the ‘choisisseuses’ – ladies who test and categorise each blank into perfect, imperfect but saleable, and reject piles, continuously feeding the information back to a central office. And in the decorating factory, although many patterns are applied using a kind of transfer (‘chromo’), details are added and mistakes corrected by hand – a very steady hand that takes at least two years to train.
Bernardaud and Royal Limoges are two of a dwindling number of porcelain manufacturers in Limoges, the French town which became the home of porcelain because of nearby deposits of kaolin, the principal component. Both companies claim to be the oldest of course, and at the Royal Limoges site you can see an original brick kiln from 1904, the only one of its kind left out of nine that they had, and hundreds altogether throughout Limoges. The cost of manufacture, changing tastes, and the nearby deposits running low have all contributed to a reduction in production. Bernardaud have responded by expanding the range of products they make to include parts for household appliances and works of art.
The students at Boisbuchet don’t have two years to learn the process – just a few days to experiment – and they are returning to Limoges over the next few days to work in the porcelain school, casting and firing their designs. And I’ll be back at Boisbuchet, continuing with my impossible project.