Today on the blog we’re taking a look at the long history of porcelain and why the material is so special. We are once again tapping into the knowledge gleaned by Jean-Charles Chappuis over many years of sourcing accessories from the best porcelain producers in the Far East, including China, Thailand, Korea, and Japan.
Porcelain and China
Since porcelain was invented in China, every historical period has seen the advancement of clay art, and ceramic and porcelain productions. The Han Dynasty, from 25 to 220, was famous for its glazed terracotta horses and warriors found in Xian. The Tang Dynasty, from 618 to 907, was known for its extraordinary glazed terracotta figurines in the tombs of the Imperial Court. The divinely feminine Song Period, from 960 to 1279, produced translucent porcelain dinnerware of exceptional quality. Of course, the Ming, from 1368 to1644, had its highly decorated pieces of porcelain and its world-famous productions of Blue and White, which is the category into which our Ming Collection fits.
Tang! Song! Ming! Later, Chin! These create a ceramic symphony lauded by all of the museums today. The products made their way to the Royal courts of Europe via the Silk Road until the early 17thcentury when the boats of Portuguese and Dutch merchants “ruined” the Silk Road and its caravans by making it all but obsolete!
Why Is Porcelain So Special?
When we speak of porcelain production in China in various cities, what is interesting is that all of the productions are supported by very small units that are sometimes just the size of a family overseen by a husband and wife. And each family only produces one technique, and possibly even one shape within each technique, which makes them highly specialized at what they do. For instance, we at Currey & Company have artisans, a husband and wife team, who are specialized only in blue and white techniques; and within this technique, they only produce square jars, like our Ming Small Lidded Jar above, which are so much more difficult to produce than the round jars, as the square shapes tend to twist while being fired in the oven.
Porcelain production belongs to a world of secrets! In essence, a family producing porcelain owns two secrets—the first secret is how to mix the ingredients to achieve the colour result they need. For instance, ox blood has its own secret as not everyone can bake ox blood to the exact tonal quality they desire. The second secret is just as important: the temperature at which the items must be baked. A change of few degrees can ruin a color and an effect. That is extraordinarily important given that on some vases there are assorted colors so the item has to be baked multiple times, once for each group of colors. Then there are “smaller” secrets, such as the fact that some colors can only be done on hand thrown bodies, and that square jars have to be made a certain way so they do not twist in the oven.
All of these families learned these secrets from their parents, and they are links in a chain of production that extends back, for some families, for more than 300 years! We at Currey & Company are so proud to be their merchants because we perpetuate a long tradition of commerce that has continued since the time of the Silk Road. Along with our Ming Collection, shown above, here are a few of our newest products in porcelain:
Our real Celadon products constitute a porcelain collection that we are so proud of culturally. All the bodies in the Maiping Collection are hand thrown, as Celadon cannot be made with moulded shapes. The attributes of our celadon is a subtlety of detailing and historical authenticity. All of the shapes are traditional shapes that harken back to a time when they all were used to store and transport food or liquids, such as like liquor. The celadon has been crackled by a thermic shock, which is accomplished when the oven door is opened a bit too fast! Then, the supreme art is layered on, as some of the crackling lines have been filled with ink, while some others have been filled up with a concoction made from steeped tea leaves. The juxtaposition of the brown tea lines and the black ink lines bring the texture of these vessels an incredible depth.
Another beautiful collection is the Kara and Karoo vases, which are made with subtle reactive glazes in pale cream, artichoke green, and cornflower blue hues. The ombre surfaces of these vases are luminous. We offer the Kara and Karoo in small and large sizes in this colorway, and in multiple sizes in a rich crystalized green glaze (below).
Supporting Artisanal Craftsmanship
When anyone purchases one of the treasures we have begun to bring to market thanks to all of the family connections Jean-Charles has made over many years, they are supporting artisanal craftsmanship that is becoming rarer in the world with each passing century, even in China, which is quickly developing like the rest of the world. Having the opportunity to support remarkably talented families and their small communities is another source of pride for us, and we wanted to pass that along to all of you so that each of you who supports us and our accessories program is aware that you are also supports these skill artisans and the villages they call home. We must say it feels wonderful to be supporting cultural artisanship and historical integrity by purchasing what are, in essence, works of art to pass along to our customers.
To understand the complexity of another of our artisanal categories in accessories, click through to our post “Lost Wax and the Art of Bronze.”