Mesmerised, I watch talented artists create magic with their fingers. I’m at the Meissen porcelain manufactory in the eponymous German town where artisans are working in a theatre-like setting, crafting world-renowned Meissen pottery aka “white gold”.
The manufactory, one of the oldest in Europe, is located 15 km northwest of Dresden, the capital of Saxony. As I’m led through room after room, I observe the workmanship of the diligent artisans, many of who have been doing their taxing job for decades up close.
Although European porcelain was invented in Dresden, it was in Meissen where it acquired global fame. Established by King Augustus the Strong in 1710, the manufactory also supplies limited edition works of art that are till today made from its historical inventory of over 700,000 moulds.
At the workshop, I see the porcelain clay being spun by hand on a potter’s wheel, creating a model from which a plaster mould is made for products that are rotationally symmetrical. With porcelain figurines, the individual parts of the sculpture (often comprising up to 100 components) are made in moulds. The clay is then placed into open moulds consisting of several pieces. The two halves are then spliced together. These pieces are then worked upon further using sculpting tools to ensure they match the model in the finest detail. During this phase, hands, facial expressions and surface texture, which haven’t been transferred adequately from the mould, are worked upon—or “finished”.
More than 40,000 visitors from across the world come to watch this masterly production of porcelain every year. The manufactory musuem also showcases over 3,000 porcelain pieces, one of the most comprehensive collections in the world. Rows upon rows of porcelain that is exquisite, sparkling, breathtaking… Oh, and expensive. Amid the array of works of art, I spot a black and white porcelain piano tagged at a gasp-worthy 200,000 euros.
“Meissen porcelain is most noted for its allegorical figures and is invariably very decorative,” the guide informs me as I look around in rapture; jewellery, tableware, home décor, figurines, urns, candelabra, mirrors and obric a brac.
The added advantage is that visitors can take a trip around the pretty town as the manufactory is located close to the medieval city centre along the Triebisch River. Known as the ‘Cradle of Saxony’, Meissen was the former capital of this region. Emperor Augustus the Strong established his rule here by erecting the hilltop Albrechtsburg Castle in the 18th Century.
Steeped in a thousand-year history, the mighty ensemble of Albrechtsburg Castle and the Meissen Cathedral add character to the city. The river Elbe can be glimpsed from the hill above —a photographer’s delight. Albrechtsburg Castle, earlier a royal residence, is now a museum showcasing fine collections in which porcelain plays an unsurprisingly prominent role.
Downtown Meissen is eminently strollable, its medieval streets, splendid squares, old houses, cafes and wine cellars adding to its intriguing charm. The old city hall and the Church of Our Lady with its 57-metre high tower are ambassadors of the town’s history.
Porcelain, I’m told, was once the object of ferocious envy among nations. Introduced in China during the Yuan Dynasty (1280-1368), it started exerting a magnetic pull on the West by the 17th century when Europeans became anxious to discover the secret potion responsible for its amazing beauty and longevity. The Chinese, however, were reluctant to reveal the secrets of porcelain whose prohibitive prices and popularity in the West were making them wealthy.
However, early in the 18th century, King Augustus arrested alchemist Johann Friedrich Bottger who failed to manufacture gold despite his tall claims. He was imprisoned in Meissen and ordered to discover the secret formula for hard paste porcelain or face death. Through trial and error, Bottger finally stumbled upon the key to both porcelain and his freedom in 1708.
Authentic Meissen pottery is marked with the traditional blue ‘crossed swords’, one of the oldest trade marks in the world that also helps in dating pieces and recognising fakes.
I saunter towards the manufactory’s retail outlet where a dazzling line-up of Meissen products greet me. However, being fiscally challenged, I quickly gravitate towards the ‘seconds’ section. As luck would have it, here too the least expensive item was a thimble for 58 euros.
However, there was succor at hand. Though I didn’t fill shopping bags with my purchases, I was invited by the staff to a tea ceremony in —obviously—Meissen porcelain. The sumptuous sight of the porcelain filled with a smorgasbord of confectionaries in Meissen tableware was a treat as much for my palate as for my eyes
I quaffed tea and coffee from one decorous cup after another feeling like a queen.
The food was exemplary. But I still wonder whether it had as much to do with the chef’s culinary prowess as the fact that it was served off Meissen porcelain.