Porcelain became an object of desire among Europe’s elite from the moment the first examples found their way from China at some point in the 13th century. Elegant, strong and lustrous, it was desirable but wildly expensive, but attempts to discover the secret of making it closer to home met with little success for many years. It wasn’t until 1708, at Meissen in Bavaria, that the breakthrough was made, with the production of the first piece of fine white porcelain under the direction of Johann Friedrich Böttger. Today, two German producers continue to lead the way in the field: Meissen and Nymphenburg. Maintaining traditional methods but constantly innovating, these celebrated names strive to ensure that fine porcelain remains as relevant and covetable as it was all those centuries ago.
Meissen – the first porcelain manufactory in Europe – was founded in the eponymous town’s Albrechtsburg castle in 1710 to build on Böttger’s pioneering work there. Keeping true to the values that established the brand, each individual Meissen artwork is still crafted by hand by dedicated artisans, whose basic training takes a minimum of three years. Time and craftsmanship are at the heart of everything Meissen produces, with a single floor-standing vase taking months of manual application and artistry to produce. As Meissen’s managing director, Dr Tillmann Blaschke, notes, ‘Many hours of work and unquantifiable creativity, love and passion are invested in each artwork before it is allowed to leave our hallowed halls.’
While Meissen may be built on centuries-old practices, the brand is also one of the driving forces behind contemporary porcelain through its collaborations with artists from across the globe. A particularly notable one was with best-selling Chinese artist Zhou Chunya, whose famous Green Dog figurines have been some of Meissen’s most popular. As the artist explains, ‘Porcelain is a fascinating material that both challenges and inspires me. The history of its manufacturing, with its many shapes and colours, creates a magnificent creative canvas. At the same time, you can breathe in the spirit of great inventors and artists, without which this work would not be possible.’
Watches and jewellery
Porcelain jewellery and watches with porcelain dials have also become a key element of Meissen’s creations. Launched in 2011, the ever popular 1739 Royal Blossom Collection includes rings, necklaces, bracelets and earrings decorated with intricate porcelain flowers, while more recent creations include a range of porcelain pendants in the shape of animals, including elephants, owls and polar bears, all painted by hand to include the finest detail.
On the outskirts of Munich is the workshop of another of Germany’s historic makers: Porzellan Manufaktur Nymphenburg. Founded in 1747 by the Bavarian elector Maximilian III Joseph, the Nymphenburg manufactory soon become one of Europe’s leading producers of porcelain. Almost from the very beginning, it worked with famous artists to create highly desirable pieces that propelled it to worldwide acclaim and made the name Nymphenburg synonymous with beautiful tableware, figurines, vases and jewellery.
Much like Meissen, Nymphenburg is still at the forefront of fine porcelain production, still collaborating with leading creatives – and attracting a legion of contemporary design fans in the process. The brand’s Tortoise collection, a selection of handcrafted tableware and vases sculpted to reflect the shell of a tortoise, was designed by US jeweller Ted Muehling; while its Spoons collection – which offers a modern take on the humble utensil, elevating it to new heights – features such luminaries as Konstantin Grcic.
Nymphenburg x Damien Hirst
Nymphenburg’s striking Myth and Legend collection is a limited edition produced in collaboration with famed British artist Damien Hirst. It comprises two porcelain figures: Myth, a unicorn with flayed legs, and Legend, a winged horse with its muscles and bones exposed on one side, each mounted on a narrow base handpainted in gold. The pieces tap into a key aspect of Hirst’s world-famous works – the consideration of what lies under the surface – as well as showcasing the talents of Nymphenburg’s artisans.
Myth and Legend
It took more than two years to develop and prepare the elaborate sculptures, which were manufactured entirely by hand at Nymphenburg’s main studio. The casting, retouching and finishing of the characteristic features alone took several weeks. Myth is composed of 10 individual elements, while Legend, with 11, is one of the manufactory’s most elaborate and intricate assemblies due to the figurine’s extremely delicate wings. To increase the intensity of the glowing shades of red, pink and yellow that the artist wanted, the dissected parts of each figurine are painted in several layers, then fired and painted again, a process that is repeated five times by Nymphenburg’s master craftsmen and women.
As Hirst explained of his inspiration for the two figurines, ‘Science broke the spell of mythology. Dissecting a mythological being and showing that it is in no way different from a mortal horse is nonetheless somehow magical. It is as though you have to destroy the myth to make it real.’
Whether via contemporary tableware, traditional figures, artist collaborations or even the humble spoon, Germany’s leading producers are elevating porcelain to new, ever-more-beautiful heights, and ensuring Germany remains at the forefront of this decorative art form.