As delicate as it appears in translucency, whiteness and fineness, porcelain is a relatively strong material made durable by heating clay with kaolinite to temperatures over 2000°F.
In general, porcelain has a high resistance to strong chemicals—such as mustard—and temperature changes—which is why it can often go from a refrigerator to an oven.
‘Porcelain’ is derived from old Italian ‘porcellana’ because of its resemblance to the translucent cowrie shell. ‘Porcelain’ has long been referred to as ‘china’ interchangeably since it originated in China—around 200AD.
Centuries after the Han Dynasty, the manufacture of porcelain increased dramatically and kilns could fire hundreds of pieces at a time. Sometime in the 9th Century, cobalt was traded between the Middle East and China allowing for the creation of now familiar blue-and-white wares.
By 1368–1644, the time of the Ming Dynasty, China largely controlled the trade of porcelain and it was during this Dynasty that blue-and- white wares were exported heavily to Europe. Since cobalt had a value greater than gold, the elaborately decorated pieces became the coveted standard for years.
Trade between the Far East and Portugal began in the early 16th century, followed by the Dutch later in that century—and even though the imported pieces were held in high esteem, it wasn’t long before local manufacturers worked to replicate or replace them.
It was the Portuguese who discovered that the kaolin clay was a key ingredient—but the Chinese had hundreds of years of experience so it wasn’t until the early 1700s that Europeans discovered other manufacturing, ‘trade’ secrets.
Once the Methuen Treaty established trading relations between England and Portugal, manufacture of porcelain soon followed and flourished. But at the same time, Hungary, Austria, Germany, and France all established strong porcelain manufacturing capabilities. For a time, plain white pieces were imported from China and decorated in Europe—however many established manufacturing areas and companies are still revered today such as Wedgwood, Arzberg and Limoges.
Bone china refers to porcelain that is made with bone ash in the clay mixture which creates a very translucent porcelain—most apparent when it’s held up to a light source—while breakthroughs in new chemicals and processes create a finish that is comparably luxurious.
New approaches to shapes also breathe life into white porcelain—such as the pieced parts of
mend dinnerware. And while formal dinnerware was traditionally ordered in placesettings for 12, today pieces of antique/vintage patterns are eclectically mixed with modern to create unique looks.