Porcelain /ˈpɔːrsəln, ˈpɔːrsln/ is a ceramic material made by heating materials, generally including kaolin, in a kiln to temperatures between 1,200 and 1,400 °C (2,200 and 2,600 °F). The toughness, strength and translucence of porcelain, relative to additional types of pottery, arises mainly from vitrification and the formation of the mineral mullite within the body at these high temperatures.

Porcelain was first developed in China around 2,000 years ago, then slowly spread to additional East Asian countries, and finally Europe and the rest of the world. Though its manufacturing process is more demanding than that for earthenware and stoneware, the two additional main types of pottery, it has usually been regarded as the most prestigious type of pottery for its delicacy, strength and beauty, and its white colour. It combines well with both glazes and paint, and can be modelled quite well, allowing a huge range of decorative treatments in tablewares, vessels and figurines. It additionally has a large number of uses in technology and industry.

The European name, porcelain in English, come from the old Italian porcellana (cowrie shell) because of its resemblance to the translucent surface of the shell. Porcelain is additionally referred to as china or fine china in a few English-speaking countries, as it was first seen in imports from China. Properties associated with porcelain include low permeability and elasticity; considerable strength, hardness, toughness, whiteness, translucency and resonance; and a high resistance to chemical attack and thermal shock.

Flower centrepiece, eighteenth century, Spain.

Porcelain has been described as being "completely vitrified, hard, impermeable (even before glazing), white or artificially coloured, translucent (except when of considerable thickness), and resonant." Notwithstanding the term porcelain lacks a universal definition and has "been applied in a quite unsystematic fashion to substances of diverse kinds which have only certain surface-qualities in common". Traditional East Asian thinking only classifies pottery into low-fired wares (earthenware) and high-fired wares (porcelain), without the intermediate European class of stoneware, and the a large number of local types of stoneware were mostly classed as porcelain, though often not white and translucent. Terms such as "porcellaneous" or "near-porcelain" might be used in such cases. A high proportion of modern porcelain is made of the variant bone china.

Materials

Kaolin is the primary material from which porcelain is made, even though clay minerals might account for only a small proportion of the whole. The word "paste" is an old term for both the unfired and fired material. A more common terminology these days for the unfired material is "body"; for example, when buying materials a potter might order an amount of porcelain body from a vendor.

The composition of porcelain is highly variable, but the clay mineral kaolinite is often a raw material. Other raw materials can include feldspar, ball clay, glass, bone ash, steatite, quartz, petuntse and alabaster.

The clays used are often described as being long or short, depending on their plasticity. Long clays are cohesive (sticky) and have high plasticity; short clays are less cohesive and have lower plasticity. In soil mechanics, plasticity is determined by measuring the increase in content of water required to change a clay from a solid state bordering on the plastic, to a plastic state bordering on the liquid, though the term is additionally used less formally to describe the facility with which a clay might be worked. Clays used for porcelain are generally of lower plasticity and are shorter than a large number of additional pottery clays. They wet quite quickly, meaning that small changes in the content of water can produce large changes in workability. Thus, the range of water content within which these clays can be worked is quite narrow and consequently must be carefully controlled.

Methods

The following section provides background information on the methods used to form, decorate, finish, glaze, and fire ceramic wares.

Forming

Glazing

Unlike their lower-fired counterparts, porcelain wares don't need glazing to render them impermeable to liquids and for the most part are glazed for decorative purposes and to make them resistant to dirt and staining. Many types of glaze, such as the iron-containing glaze used on the celadon wares of Longquan, were designed specifically for their striking effects on porcelain. Bisque porcelain is unglazed.

Decoration

Song Dynasty celadon porcelain with a fenghuang spout, tenth century, China.

Porcelain wares might be decorated under the glaze using pigments that include cobalt and copper or over the glaze using coloured enamels. Like a large number of earlier wares, modern porcelains are often biscuit-fired at around 1,000 °C (1,830 °F), coated with glaze and then sent for a second glaze-firing at a temperature of about 1,300 °C (2,370 °F) or greater. An Additional early method is once-fired where the glaze is applied to the unfired body and the two fired together in a single operation.

Firing

In this process, green (unfired) ceramic wares are heated to high temperatures in a kiln to permanently set their shapes. Porcelain is fired at a higher temperature than earthenware so that the body can vitrify and become non-porous.

History

Chinese porcelain

Porcelain originated in China. Although proto-porcelain wares exist dating from the Shang Dynasty (1600–1046 BC), by the time of the Eastern Han Dynasty period (206 BC – 220 AD), glazed ceramic wares had developed into porcelain. Porcelain manufactured throughout the Tang Dynasty (618–907 AD) was exported to the Islamic world, where it was highly prized. Early porcelain of this type includes the tri-colour glazed porcelain, or sancai wares. There is no precise date to separate the production of proto-porcelain from that of porcelain. Porcelain items in the sense that we know them today can be found in the Tang Dynasty, and archaeological finds have pushed the dates back to as early as the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD). By the Sui Dynasty (581–618 AD) and Tang Dynasty (618–907 AD), porcelain was widely produced.

Bowl with dragons, phoenixes, gourds, and characters for happiness. From Peabody Essex Museum.

Eventually, porcelain and the expertise required to create it began to spread into additional areas of East Asia. During the Song Dynasty (960–1279 AD), artistry and production had reached new heights. The manufacture of porcelain became highly organised, and the kiln sites excavated from this period could fire as a large number of as 25,000 wares. While Xing Ware is regarded as among the greatest of the Tang Dynasty porcelain, Ding Ware became the premier porcelain of Song Dynasty.

By the time of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644 AD), porcelain wares were being exported to Europe. Some of the most well-known Chinese porcelain art styles arrived in Europe throughout this era, such as the coveted blue-and-white wares. The Ming Dynasty controlled much of the porcelain trade, which was expanded to Asia, Africa and Europe via the Silk Road. In 1517, Portuguese merchants began direct trade by sea with the Ming Dynasty, and in 1598, Dutch merchants followed.

Some porcelains were more highly valued than others in imperial China. We can identify the most valued types by their association with the court, either as tribute offerings, or as products of kilns under imperial supervision. Some of the best-known examples are of Jingdezhen porcelain. During the Ming dynasty, Jingdezhen porcelain become a source of imperial pride. The Yongle emperor erected a white porcelain brick-faced pagoda at Nanjing, and an exceptionally smoothly glazed type of white porcelain is peculiar to his reign. Jingdezhen porcelain's fame came to a peak in the Qing dynasty.

Japanese porcelain

Nabeshima ware dish with Hydrangeas, c. 1680-1720, Arita, Okawachi kilns, hard-paste porcelain with cobalt and enamels

Although the Japanese elite were keen importers of Chinese porcelain from early on, they weren't able to make their own until the arrival of Korean potters taken captive throughout the Japanese invasions of Korea (1592–98). They brought an improved type of kiln, and one of them spotted a source of porcelain clay near Arita, and before long several kilns had started in the region. At first their wares were similar to the cheaper and cruder Chinese porcelains with underglaze blue decoration that were already widely sold in Japan; this style was to continue for cheaper everyday wares until the twentieth century.

Exports to Europe began around 1660, through the Dutch East India Company, the only Europeans allowed a trading presence. Chinese exports had been seriously disrupted by civil wars as the Ming dynasty fell apart, and the Japanese exports increased rapidly to fill the gap. At first the wares used European shapes and mostly Chinese decoration, as the Chinese had done, but gradually original Japanese styles developed. Nabeshima ware was produced in kilns owned by that family of feudal lords, and used decoration in the Japanese tradition, much of it related to textile design. This wasn't initially exported, but used for gifts to additional aristocratic families. Imari ware and Kakiemon are broad terms for styles of export porcelain with overglaze "enamelled" decoration begun in the early period, both with a large number of sub-types.

A great range of styles and manufacturing centres were in use by the start of the nineteenth century, and as Japan opened to trade in the second half, exports expanded hugely, and quality typically declined. Much traditional porcelain continues to repeat older methods of production and styles, and there are several modern industrial manufacturers.

European porcelain

Fonthill vase is the earliest Chinese porcelain object to have reached Europe. It was a Chinese gift for Louis the Great of Hungary in 1338.
Section of a letter from Francois Xavier d'Entrecolles about Chinese porcelain manufacturing techniques, 1712, re-published by Jean-Baptiste Du Halde in 1735.

These exported Chinese porcelains were held in such great esteem in Europe that in the English language china became a commonly–used synonym for the Franco-Italian term porcelain. The first mention of porcelain in Europe is in Il Milione by Marco Polo in XII sec. Apart from copying Chinese porcelain in faience (tin glazed earthenware), the soft-paste Medici porcelain in 16th-century Florence was the first real European attempt to reproduce it, with little success.

Early in the sixteenth century, Portuguese traders returned home with samples of kaolin, which they discovered in China to be essential in the production of porcelain wares. Notwithstanding the Chinese techniques and composition used to manufacture porcelain weren't yet fully understood. Countless experiments to produce porcelain had unpredictable results and met with failure. In the German state of Saxony, the search concluded in 1708 when Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus produced a hard, white, translucent type of porcelain specimen with a combination of ingredients, including kaolin and alabaster, mined from a Saxon mine in Colditz. It was a closely guarded trade secret of the Saxon enterprise.

In 1712, a large number of of the elaborate Chinese porcelain manufacturing secrets were revealed throughout Europe by the French Jesuit father Francois Xavier d'Entrecolles and soon published in the Lettres édifiantes et curieuses de Chine par des missionnaires jésuites. The secrets, which d'Entrecolles read about and witnessed in China, were now known and began seeing use in Europe.

Meissen

Meissen plate from the huge and famous Swan Service, 1737-42

Von Tschirnhaus and Johann Friedrich Böttger were employed by Augustus II the Strong and worked at Dresden and Meissen in the German state of Saxony. Tschirnhaus had a wide knowledge of science and had been involved in the European quest to perfect porcelain manufacture when in 1705 Böttger was appointed to assist him in this task. Böttger had originally been trained as a pharmacist; after he turned to alchemical research, he claimed to have known the secret of transmuting dross into gold, which attracted the attention of Augustus. Imprisoned by Augustus as an incentive to hasten his research, Böttger was obliged to work with additional alchemists in the futile search for transmutation and was eventually assigned to assist Tschirnhaus. One of the first results of the collaboration between the two was the development of a red stoneware that resembled that of Yixing.

A workshop note records that the first specimen of hard, white and vitrified European porcelain was produced in 1708. At the time, the research was still being supervised by Tschirnhaus; however, he died in October of that year. It was left to Böttger to report to Augustus in March 1709 that he could make porcelain. For this reason, credit for the European discovery of porcelain is traditionally ascribed to him rather than Tschirnhaus.

The Meissen factory was established in 1710 after the development of a kiln and a glaze suitable for use with Böttger's porcelain, which required firing at temperatures of up to 1,400 °C (2,552 °F) to achieve translucence. Meissen porcelain was once-fired, or green-fired. It was noted for its great resistance to thermal shock; a visitor to the factory in Böttger's time reported having seen a white-hot teapot being removed from the kiln and dropped into cold water without damage. Evidence to support this widely disbelieved storey was given in the 1980s when the procedure was repeated in an experiment at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Soft paste porcelain

Saint-Cloud manufactory soft porcelain bowl, with blue decoration under glaze, 1700–1710.
Chantilly porcelain, soft-paste, 1750-1760

The pastes produced by combining clay and powdered glass (frit) were called Frittenporzellan in Germany and frita in Spain. In France they were known as pâte tendre and in England as "soft-paste". They appear to have been given this name because they don't easily retain their shape in the wet state, or because they tend to slump in the kiln under high temperature, or because the body and the glaze can be easily scratched.

Experiments at Rouen produced the earliest soft-paste in France, but the first important French soft-paste porcelain was made at the Saint-Cloud factory before 1702. Soft-paste factories were established with the Chantilly manufactory in 1730 and at Mennecy in 1750. The Vincennes porcelain factory was established in 1740, moving to larger premises at in 1756. Vincennes soft-paste was whiter and freer of imperfections than any of its French rivals, which put Vincennes/Sèvres porcelain in the leading position in France and throughout the whole of Europe in the second half of the eighteenth century.

The first soft-paste in England was demonstrated by Thomas Briand to the Royal Society in 1742 and is believed to have been based on the Saint-Cloud formula. In 1749, Thomas Frye took out a patent on a porcelain containing bone ash. This was the first bone china, subsequently perfected by Josiah Spode.

In the twenty-five years after Briand's demonstration, a number of factories were founded in England to make soft-paste table-wares and figures:

Other developments

William Cookworthy discovered deposits of kaolin in Cornwall, making a considerable contribution to the development of porcelain and additional whiteware ceramics in the United Kingdom. Cookworthy's factory at Plymouth, established in 1768, used kaolin and china stone to make porcelain with a body composition similar to that of the Chinese porcelains of the early eighteenth century.

Types

Chinese Imperial Dish with Flowering Prunus, Famille Rose overglaze enamel, between 1723 and 1735
Demonstration of the translucent quality of porcelain

Porcelain can be divided into the three main categories (hard-paste, soft-paste and bone china), depending on the composition of the paste used to make the body of the porcelain object and the firing conditions.

Hard paste

These porcelains that came from East Asia, especially China, were a few of the finest quality porcelain wares. The earliest European porcelains were produced at the Meissen factory in the early eighteenth century; they were formed from a paste composed of kaolin and alabaster and fired at temperatures up to 1,400 °C (2,552 °F) in a wood-fired kiln, producing a porcelain of great hardness, translucency, and strength. Later, the composition of the Meissen hard paste was changed and the alabaster was replaced by feldspar and quartz, allowing the pieces to be fired at lower temperatures. Kaolinite, feldspar and quartz (or additional forms of silica) continue to constitute the basic ingredients for most continental European hard-paste porcelains.

Soft paste

Soft-paste porcelains date back from the early attempts by European potters to replicate Chinese porcelain by using mixtures of clay and frit. Soapstone and lime were known to have been included in these compositions. These wares weren't yet actual porcelain wares as they weren't hard nor vitrified by firing kaolin clay at high temperatures. As these early formulations suffered from high pyroplastic deformation, or slumping in the kiln at high temperatures, they were uneconomic to produce and of low quality. Formulations were later developed based on kaolin with quartz, feldspars, nepheline syenite or additional feldspathic rocks. These were technically superior, and continue to be produced. Soft-paste porcelains are fired at lower temperatures than hard-paste porcelain, therefore these wares are generally less hard than hard-paste porcelains.

Bone china

Although originally developed in England in 1748 in order to compete with imported porcelain, bone china is now made worldwide. The English had read the letters of Jesuit missionary Francois Xavier d'Entrecolles, which described Chinese porcelain manufacturing secrets in detail. One writer has speculated that a misunderstanding of the text could possibly have been responsible for the first attempts to use bone-ash as an ingredient of English porcelain, although this isn't supported by researchers and historians. In China, kaolin was at times described as forming the 'bones' of the paste, while the 'flesh' was provided by the refined rocks suitable for the porcelain body. Traditionally, English bone china was made from two parts of bone-ash, one part of kaolin and one part china stone, although this has largely been replaced by feldspars from non-UK sources.

Other uses

Electric insulating material

Porcelain insulator for medium-high voltage

Porcelain and additional ceramic materials have a large number of applications in engineering, especially ceramic engineering. Porcelain is an excellent insulator for use at high voltage, especially in outdoor applications, see Insulator (electricity)#Material. Examples include: terminals for high-voltage cables, bushings of power transformers, insulation of high frequency antennas and a large number of additional components.

Building material

Dakin Building, Brisbane, California using porcelain panels

Porcelain can be used as a building material, usually in the form of tiles or large rectangular panels. Modern porcelain tiles are generally produced by a number of recognised international standards and definitions. Manufacturers are found across the world with Italy being the global leader, producing over 380 million square metres in 2006. Historic examples of rooms decorated entirely in porcelain tiles can be found in several European palaces including ones at Galleria Sabauda in Turin, Museo di Doccia in Sesto Fiorentino, Museo di Capodimonte in Naples, the Royal Palace of Madrid and the nearby Royal Palace of Aranjuez. and the Porcelain Tower of Nanjing. More recent noteworthy examples include The Dakin Building in Brisbane, California, and the Gulf Building in Houston, Texas, which when constructed in 1929 had a 21-metre-long (69 ft) porcelain logo on its exterior. A more detailed description of the history, manufacture and properties of porcelain tiles is given in the article “Porcelain Tile: The Revolution Is Only Beginning.”

Bathroom fittings

Porcelain Chamber Pots from Vienna.

Because of its durability, inability to rust and impermeability, glazed porcelain has been in use for personal hygiene after at least the third quarter of the seventeenth century. During this period, porcelain chamber pots were commonly found in higher-class European households, and the term "bourdaloue" was used as the name for the pot.

However bath tubs aren't made of porcelain, but of porcelain enamel on a metal base, usually of cast iron. Porcelain enamel is a marketing term used in the US, and isn't porcelain but vitreous enamel.

Loudspeakers

Spherical speakers made from porcelain

Porcelain has been used for loudspeaker casings.

Manufacturers

Porcelain wares, such as those similar to these Yongle-era porcelain flasks, were often presented as trade goods throughout the 15th-century Chinese maritime expeditions. (British Museum)