Porcelain is made by heating ceramic materials that contain kaolin to a temperature of 1200 and 1400 °C. All porcelain contains the clay mineral kaolin, and kaolin contains metals like alkali and aluminum.
Porcelains have a paste-like quality and the texture is elastic. It has a completely different feel to other clays when you work with it.
The name of porcelain in Europe has come from the old Italian name porcellana that was cowrie shell because it resembles the surface of the shell.
When porcelain is fired, it develops a glass-like appearance-- a prized quality, along with low permeability, strength, and hardness which drove insatiable international demand starting as early as the seventeenth century.
What we think of as porcelain today-- a vitreous, white-bodied, thin, and colorfully glazed or painted ceramic -- is a Western definition.
The Chinese categorizes ceramics into 'high-fired' and 'low-fired'.
This brings us to the predecessors of porcelain.
History and development:
The first evidence of porcelain can be traced 2,000 years back to the Eastern Han Dynasty. At the time of the Eastern Han dynasty (AD 25–220), the Chinese developed a glossy ceramic which they called high-fired ware. These are the predecessors of modern porcelain.
The popular areas of porcelain production were Jiangxi province because that province has a rich supply of kaolin.
By the time of the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 CE), the development of ceramics technology-- in both the making of the form and the glazing and decorating-- reached an important milestone.
As Buddhism spread and became prevalent in China, tea drinking took off as a cultural institution as it was a favorite drink of monks-- tea aided in staying awake during hours of meditation.
To enhance the experience of tea drinking, a porcelain-like type of light green ceramics called celadon was lauded in the first book ever written on tea. This further crystalized the beauty and demand for porcelain both domestically and abroad as international trade by the maritime trade routes was bringing this new and exciting product into markets abroad.
During the Tang Dynasty was when 'foreigners' first got a taste for porcelain-- or more accurately proto-porcelain.
Ceramics slowly developed in China over thousands of years. Porcelain was a natural result of continuous development as the raw material was available and its use understood early on.
The sudden influx of a large volume of porcelain into Europe in the seventeenth century, sparked by the Santa Catarina Incident, raised its profile and the awareness of its profit potential. This drove the European race to crack the mystery of porcelain making.
The ‘secret’ of porcelain:
The secret of porcelain is... kaolin.
This was the secret ingredient that the Europeans scratched their heads over for a couple of centuries. The first European manufacturer to successfully produce porcelain was Meissen in 1710.
Cover photo: Ming Dynasty. Fishes in the Imperial Pond – An Exceptional Xuande Bowl. Sotheby's 2017.