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NatureInterface > No.02 > P100 [Japanese]

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The Alchemist Who Reproduced Porcelain


Marco Polo was said to have been the first person to introduce ceramics into Europe. He was a Venetian merchant in the 13th century, and brought a small vase from China when he went there. As its white and smooth surface looked like "porcella" (a kind of shell), the name porcelain has been used ever since. Porcelain, which had a delicate beauty, became the key commodity being imported from the Orient, reflecting the popularity of Chinese things among European kings, feudal lords, and powerful aristocrats. From the 15th century through the first half of the 16th century, Portugal ordered porcelain through Chinese traders. Thereafter, in 17th century Europe, when the Netherlands started the Far-East China porcelain trade with the East India Company, porcelain became the object of enthusiastic admiration.

Ceramics were thought to have been invented during the Sung era of China. This is why Porcelain is called 'China.' Kaolin, which is essential to bake ceramics, was called 'China' after being collected from Mt. Kaolin near Kingtenchen, which is known as the biggest porcelain manufacturing city in China.

It was Korean potters that introduced this technique to Arita, Japan. It is generally believed that Li Sampei came across a piece of ceramic at Mt. Izumi when Hideyoshi Toyotomi dispatched troops to Korea. To prevent the leak of the porcelain manufacturing process, potters in Arita did their work in a secret place. As porcelain producing stopped because of a political change in China, the Verenigade Oost-indische Compagnie found their source in Arita. From 1615, during the Edo era in Japan, old Imariware or Kakiemon-style porcelain was brought to Europe stamped with the logotype "VOC,"which stands for "Verenigade Oost-indische Compagnie." This porcelain must have been striking in comparison with Kingterchen chinawork, which was all glazed in blue.

During the long and severe winters of Northern Europe, how brilliant the imported porcelain must have looked in Friedrich August Second's court. He paid large sums to purchase porcelain, and had them decorated richly to show his riches and power. He also became involved in making porcelain, commanding Boettger, who was an alchemist, and Tschirnhausen, who was a chemist, an economist, and his vassal, to develop techniques for producing ceramics in the hopes of garnering enormous profits from their sale.

Kaolin is a kind of clay mineral, consisting of clay and feldspar. Clay in kaolin makes it easier to form the shapes of chinaware, whereas aluminum in kaolin makes the shapes well retained. It is also glassy, however, and can withstand high temperatures in firing. A heat-resistant temperature of 1300-1400 degrees Celsius is required to make its surface white, transparent and smooth. This is where Boettger took great pains. He made a special atelier in an old castle in Koenichstein. Believing that kaolin held the key to baking ceramic successfully, he ordered soil from every place in Sachsen, and repeated experiments over and over again. Finally, in 1709, using kaolin from Ergebirge, he succeeded in baking hard ceramic. The European history of chinaware started with the establishment of the Royal Porcelain Factory of Meissen, by the order of August the First. After the industrial revolution, large-scale production of imitation pottery started. Since then, many kinds of pottery have been copied, because of the leak of the secret process required to make it. At the beginning of the 20th century, European potters such as Auric, Bishop, Lakoff and others went over to the new world, the United States of America. They introduced china painting to housewives, and it became popular as a hobby. They were the founders of American painting on China. Nowadays, chinaware can be ordered from China, Brazil, Taiwan, Europe, and Japan. It is interesting to see the variation in textures, which depends on the place where the china has been produced. I cannot help but think in wonder how the porcelain manufacturing process that resulted in the porcelain that now sits in my hand was born in China 800 years ago conveyed to the Korean Peninsula, to the Arita area of Japan, to northern Europe, and finally to the United States.

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