R.E. has an oval porcelain dish that she loves: It is blue turquoise, with images of two exotic birds, and she wonders why she likes it so much. She may like it so much because it has a vast history, and at one time, it was conserved rare and valuable. Not today, however, when this little plate might sell for $150 if she is lucky.
Another answer is that in the 18th and 19th centuries, porcelain was considered “white gold.”
Why? Because the secret to making porcelain — on the basic chemical level — was not discovered in Europe until the 18th century.
In Persia and China, well, it goes back thousands of years.
What makes something “gold” is who wants it, and how much they will pay for the product, and the nobility of Europe would pay a hefty sum for porcelain in those days. That’s hard to think about because today, a porcelain table service is not worth much.
A recent auction comparable sale describes R.E.’s plaque as porcelain of the 18th century, a decoration of the 19th century, with an interlace “L” mark to the back. So when I sent this auction result to R.E., she said, “What does that mean?”
What that means is that the designs from the 18th century were in production again in the 19th century for a particularly good reason, so read on!
Let us go back into the history of Serves, called “the Manufacture Nationale de Sevres, Haute de Seine,” founded by a company in that area called Vincennes in 1740. Well, the French Crown took notice of that small factory and ordered it moved to Serves and bought it in 1759. The Crown was interested in only what could make the Crown money and gain the Crown prestige.
There was a secret chemical formula for soft paste porcelain, and it was not discovered (in Europe) until 1710 when Augustus the Strong (King of Saxony) hired the brilliant chemist Bolger to figure out how Asian porcelain was made. Thus Bolger re-discovered hard paste porcelain (that deep heat firing makes it impervious to heat and able to be glazed). When France heard about this (always a rival to Germany as regards taste), chemists alerted Louis XV, who bought a lab/ factory in France and urged further discoveries.
Sevres of this period are marked in the double “L” for Louis. Some of the first international spies lurked around the German factory, trying to purloin secrets of porcelain and bring those chemical analyses back to France.
Now the discovery of White Gold in France was hastened by the discovery of Kaolin in the area around Limoges. Then Louis purchased those quarries of that mineral. All the heads of state wanted porcelain for their table and their display halls. What our kids do not want today — that’s what they wanted in the 18th century!
Louis hired the best painters, gilders, and chemists to make French porcelain the best in the world, and in fact, the French Académie des Sciences said that in 1769 France had perfected hard paste porcelain. Of course, that was true, but 1,000 years previously, so did China.
So popular was this Serves porcelain that George IV Queen’s Gallery in Buckingham has the largest collection of Serves in the world.
After the French Revolution (and I do not have to tell you that Louis XVI was executed: he reigned from 1774-1792), the French Republic was birthed. That Republic rebranded Sevres Porcelain “RF Serves.”
Lucien Bonaparte ruled in 1800 and his Uncle Napoleon and wife Josephine loved porcelain, and therefore in the dawn of the 19th century, Sevres was being made in the old style for the New Republic.
‘After Napoleon fell in 1815, Lois XVIII came to rule France, because he was a conservative, and a Crowned Royal Prince, Louis XVIII ordered reproductions of the 18th C motifs dear to Louis XVI. He showed the reproductions of the old styles regularly at the Louvre.
Of course, (another prince) Louis Phillip (1830-1848) continued in this conservative tradition, until France had yet another revolution (1848), and Napoleon the Third took the throne (Napoleon’s nephew) and reigned from 1852-1870. This was called the Second Republic, and because it was the second of one of Napoleon’s heirs becoming rulers of France, the style of the First Republic was brought back by Napoleon III’s wife Empresses Eugenie, who adored old traditional Serves porcelain.
Hard to understand today because we do not treasure this style, but for 200 years indeed, Serves was White Gold.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.