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The First Porcelain Produced in Europe

Alchemy Leads to Something Better than Gold

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Portrait of Johann Friedrich Bottger.

Portrait of Johann Friedrich Bottger, the alchemist who developed the first European porcelain clay body.

Drawing © 2008 Beth E Peterson

How were the first porcelain clay bodies finally discovered and produced in Europe? After all, European potters had been trying for decades to unlock the secrets of the fine, imported Chinese porcelains, to no avail.

In the end, it took an alchemist, not a potter, to discover the secret.

Back in 1682, Johann Friedrich Böttger was born to a family of German goldsmiths and craftsmen working in the mints (money-manufacturing factories). Young Böttger was brilliant and had a real aptitude for chemistry. This talent usually led to a career as a pharmacist, and Böttger was soon apprenticed as such. However, by the age of 19, Böttger's restless spirit had led him to begin secretly exploring the much more exciting (and forbidden) field of alchemy.

He became convinced he could discover the secret of turning lead into gold. He even began giving secret demonstrations of his alchemical skills (using a bit of slight of hand, as well), and although his audiences were cautioned not to tell, they of course did. Word of his apparently successful demonstrations reached the ears of August the Strong, elector of Saxony and king of Poland.

When asked by August, Böttger promised to produce gold within a few weeks. Time went by, however, with no results. August grew impatient and eventually had Böttger thrown into prison, with the ultimatum of produce gold or die.

Böttger stayed in prison for seven long years. During this time, he met Ehrenfried Walter von Tschirnhaus, who was also an alchemist and a mathematician. Tschirnhaus was most interested in producing porcelain, an exotic substance which at that time could only be gotten from China, and which was worth much more than mere gold.

Böttger's interests moved from producing gold to producing porcelain. He was able to convince August (whose interest was in the monetary value) to allow him to change his studies and pursue the formula for a porcelain clay body. Although August did agree to the change in focus, he still kept Böttger in prison.

From Tschirnhaus, Böttger knew that kaolin was involved with porcelain in some way. It was a key ingredient, but what were the others? Kaolin deposits had been found in the Alps, so he had a supply of that clay as he began experimenting with formulas and firing techniques.

The breakthrough came on January 15, 1708. In testing varying ratios of kaolin clay and alabaster, Böttger found three ratios that met the parameters of a porcelain clay body. His tiny test tiles were the very first European-produced porcelain objects.

There was still a great deal of work to make a reliable, workable clay body and to build kilns able to reach the high temperatures that were required. Even so, August was pleased enough that he sponsored (or perhaps demanded) Böttger's opening a porcelain factory, the very first one in Europe, in Meissen.

August the Strong was also paranoid about losing the secrets of the porcelain, so he continued to keep Böttger (as well as the factory workers) locked up, even though they were not considered to be in prison. Böttger himself died in 1719, but experimentation to improve the porcelain body continued. Finally, in 1724 the Meissen factory discovered a workable formula using much more stable substances, feldspar and quartz, and moved away from the touchy alabaster used up to that time.

Kaolin, feldspar and quartz are still used in porcelain clay bodies today.

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