Porcelain in Europe
The history of porcelain in Europe starts with Marco Polo. In the 14th century, the explorer brought a small jar from China back to Europe with him and Chinese porcelain became a favourite among royalty. During the sixteenth century, the Portuguese and Dutch established commercial trade routes to China and the European market for porcelain grew fast. China kept porcelain’s ingredients and production process a closely guarded secret, inspiring scientists across Europe to experiment with materials and formulas. The first European porcelain factory was established in Saxony in 1710 after kaolin was discovered nearby.
In 1768, a chemist’s wife in Saint-Yrieix, a commune just outside of Limoges in southwest-central France, made a thrilling discovery: A soft white substance in the soil. At first, the story goes, the woman thought the substance could be used to wash and bleach linen, but it turned out she had stumbled upon “white gold.” The substance was kaolin, a rare and precious white clay that is a key ingredient in crafting fine porcelain. That discovery set Limoges on a path towards becoming a centre for some of the most beautiful and coveted porcelain in the world.
The first porcelain with the Limoges mark was produced in 1771. Limoges had all the essential natural ingredients needed to create world-class porcelain—kaolin, feldspar and quartz—but, just as importantly, the region had a vibrant history of craftsmanship that dated back nearly a millennium. In the 12th century, Limoges was the most famous European centre of vitreous enamel production, known as “Opus de Limogia” or “Labor Limogiae“. Limoges also produced faience earthenware or fine in-glazed pottery. The heritage of ceramics and decoration was deeply woven into the fabric of the city.
Making porcelain is a difficult, delicate, and time-intensive process that involves vitrifying the clay multiple times at extremely high temperatures. Limoges porcelain is known for its dazzling white, luminous hue and the intricacy of its hand-painted decorations. At first, its manufacture was placed under the protection of the Comte d’Artois, Louis XVI’s brother, and then purchased by the King himself. It became the Manufacture Royale de Limoges, with the exclusive right to produce Limoges porcelain for the Kingdom of France. In Louis XVI’s time, the manufacturer primarily produced trinket boxes of varying shapes and sizes depending on what they were meant to hold, from embroidery scissors to snuff powder to poems. Popular design styles included Rococo-style figures; exotic birds, flowers, and marine subjects on bright colour backgrounds; minute patterns embellished in gold; and narrative scenes from classical mythology and pastoral life.
Figure 1. Arnaud Dubois (2023), Making process in Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Art et de Design of Limoges.
Figure 2. Arnaud Dubois (2023), Detail of the making process in Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Art et de Design of Limoges.
After the French Revolution, the restrictions on porcelain production were lifted and commercial trade flourished. In 1819, the region had four porcelain factories; by 1900, there were 35 factories and 120 kilns employing up to 8,000 workers. Limoges became the undisputed French capital of porcelain production, as well as a major exporter of porcelain to the U.S.
Centuries later, Limoges porcelain continues to signal luxury and refinement. Limoges objects and dinnerware collections are commissioned by presidents and royalty and passed down through generations in families, but the industry continues to push creative boundaries that maintain porcelain’s relevance.
Limoges porcelain has always married the beautiful with the functional. Some applications of porcelain draw on the material’s unique properties of strength, durability, and imperviousness to create products that enhance everyday life. Thanks to its unique geologic and design history, Limoges is a global centre that showcases all the possibilities of what porcelain can be.
Figure 3. Arnaud Dubois (2023), Atmosphere at – Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Art et de Design of Limoges.
Figure 4. Arnaud Dubois (2023), Atmosphere at – Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Art et de Design of Limoges.