August the Strong, Prince Elector of Saxony, was intrigued. In 1701, he received a letter from a young man named Johann Friedrich Böttger who was an alchemist and had been arrested in Wittenberg, a town outside August’s realm. Böttger claimed that he could turn base metals into gold. If there was something August loved more than women (rumor has it that he fathered about 300 illegitimate children), it was gold.
The art-loving ruler amassed heaps of treasure during his lifetime some of which can still be seen in the Green Vault in Dresden. The temptation to have his own gold-maker was irresistible: after a short dispute with the Prussian king who also had his eye on Böttger, August discreetly moved Böttger to Dresden where he was strictly guarded and in fact imprisoned so he would not flee and take his secret knowledge about gold-making with him.
This went on for years. Böttger failed to make gold, always claiming that he was “nearly there”. In 1704, he was paired with Walther von Tschirnhaus, another alchemist in August’s “custody” who had initially been on a search for the “philosopher’s stone” on August’s request but had turned to experimenting with substances to make porcelain. Böttger never succeeded in making gold and Tschirnhaus never found the philosopher’s stone. But together they developed the formula how to make “white gold” – hard paste porcelain.
Tschirnhaus did not live to the immense success of their invention. He died in 1708, 2 years before the delighted August the Strong founded the first European porcelain factory in Meissen in 1710. Böttger was finally granted his freedom in 1714 under the condition that he would not leave the country nor share the secret about porcelain-making with anyone. Oh, and finally, make gold… He passed away in 1719, being only 37 years old. Porcelain became the pride and a treasured export of Saxony, providing employment to many people and luring great artists to Saxony to work in the industry.
There is a lot of confusion about “Meissen porcelain” and “Dresden porcelain” as they are often used interchangeably in the English-speaking countries. The mistake is understandable when you know that Meissen and Dresden are only about 16 miles apart. Meissen is the location of the first porcelain factory founded by August the Strong, but he resided in Dresden and his porcelain, characterized by the blue cross-swords stamp, was rather associated with this city, as the much of it was sold here.
But in fact, “Meissen porcelain” and “Dresden porcelain” are 2 very different things. I don’t mean to slight the great craftmanship and art of the Meissen porcelain. Its excellent reputation around the world is well-deserved and after all, it is the oldest porcelain factory in Europe. But you find it everywhere, new and old, handed down, auctioned off on eBay… Dresden porcelain on the other hand, is not that ubiquitous. You can find it on eBay, but it is still something not everybody has, something for the porcelain connoisseur.
So, what is “Dresden porcelain”?
Carl-Johann Thieme was a skilled porcelain painter who owned a small porcelain and antique store in the center of Dresden. In 1872 he decided to follow his biggest dream and produce his own porcelain. He found a suitable place for his enterprise in the industrial district Potschappel just outside Dresden and the “Sächsische Porzellan-Fabrik Carl Thieme zu Potschappel” opened in September 1872.
The factory prospered from the beginning and this success was largely due to porcelain modeler Carl August Kuntzsch who also happened to be Thieme’s own son in law. Kuntzsch created a floral décor that would become a unique trademark of Dresden porcelain and became the factory’s director after Thieme’s death in 1912. The world wars affected the factory quite heavily as exports caved in and valuable workers left or were killed in the wars, but the factory survived only to be expropriated step by step by the GDR government. Outside socialist East Germany, the beautiful porcelain was quite popular, and the 180 workers mainly produced pieces for export to West Germany and the rest of Western Europe.
Following the German re-unification, the Dresden porcelain factory experienced turbulent times. From a “people-owned socialist” enterprise it went into the hands of a trust until it was bought by French investors who went bankrupt not long afterwards. It passed through the hands of several owners until the Russian businessman Armenak S. Agababyan bought it in 2008 and gave it the much-needed financial stability to continue the production. Despite some ups and downs, the factory nowadays has again an excellent reputation for its handmade and artistic porcelain.
In the early days of founder Carl-Johann Thieme the main designs mirrored forms and shapes of the Baroque and Rococo era. Nowadays, the preferred design language ranges from Baroque to Classicism and into Biedermeier art. Floral designs, opulent painting and rich gold decor are trademarks and give Dresden Porcelain such an elegant and classy touch. Dresden porcelain is a piece of Saxony just like the iconic dome of the church of our lady in Dresden, the “Eierschecke” cake that the Saxons love so much or the stunning crags and stone pinnacles in the Elb Sandstone Mountains. It survived world wars, the socialist regime of East Germany, mismanagement and changing owners. It is hard to believe that there is such a turbulent history behind these serene and delightful pieces of porcelain.