After centuries of imitating imported Asian porcelains in other materials, J.F. Böttger, an alchemist working at the Dresden court of Augustus the Strong, became the first European to make this highly coveted 'white gold'. Capitalising on this discovery, Augustus founded the Meissen factory, where 'hard-paste' porcelain of the Chinese type was made from 1713. Although Meissen made enormous efforts to protect its secrets, industrial spies and defecting workmen took their knowledge of the formulas and processes to Vienna and Venice, laying the foundations for a European-wide hard-paste porcelain industry.
The experimental years
Before it was able to produce white porcelain, for a few years the Meissen factory made a brown stoneware inspired by Chinese redwares. Known today as 'Böttger stoneware', the basic material could be lapidary-polished, painted in imitation of lacquer or left undecorated. Shapes for Böttger stoneware and the early undecorated porcelains were copied from Asian ceramics or designed by the Dresden court silversmith, J.J. Irminger.
Once porcelain production had been achieved, the Meissen factory was faced with a further challenge: to master the enamelling technique necessary to decorate the wares. Initially this work was contracted to the Dresden enameller, J.G. Funke. However, in 1720, J.G. Höroldt was recruited from the rival Vienna factory. Under his direction, the processes were mastered and a distinctive style of enamelling introduced.
The high cost of Meissen's enamelled wares encouraged small decorating workshops to buy plain white Meissen porcelain and enamel or gild it for resale. Such independent enamellers were known by the German term hausmaler ('house painter'). They often decorated a range of materials, including Meissen and Asian porcelain, tin-glazed earthenware and glass.
Meissen's secrets revealed
Industrial spies and departing workmen took Meissen's manufacturing secrets to Vienna and Venice, where the Du Paquier and Vezzi factories were founded in 1718 and 1720 respectively. Craftsmen from Vienna then went on to work at the Doccia factory near Florence. A workman who defected from Vienna in 1747 eventually spread knowledge of Meissen's formula all over Germany.