Germany Stories and Tips

Meissen (Dresden China)

Porcelain from Meissen, in the English speaking world known as Dresden China, is also called ‘the White Gold’. What is so special about it? There are manufactories of fine porcelain in other countries as well, but it was in Meissen that the white, hard porcelain was discovered for Europe. The Chinese have produced porcelain since the 13th century - hence porcelain and China have become synonyms - but the Europeans didn’t know the secret up to the beginning of the 18th century. And then they discovered it only by chance.

The alchemist Johann Friedrich Böttger was imprisoned by the Prussian King Frederick the Great in 1700 and ordered to make gold. He could escape to Saxony only to be seized by Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, and given the same task. People have always been greedy! Not surprisingly he didn’t succeed in the gold making business, but found the formula for making porcelain instead. Augustus was delighted with the porcelain Böttger made, forgot about the gold and placed him at the head of the newly established manufactory in Meissen.

Meissen is situated about 25 km away from Dresden down the river Elbe, today it has 36 000 inhabitants. It has been a town in its own right for over 1000 years, it’s older than Dresden and calls itself ‘the cradle of Saxony’. Why the English speaking world prefers the term ‘Dresden China’ to ‘Meissen Porcelain’ is something I don’t know and can’t explain.

I own a tea and a mocha service. The tea service is called ‘Field Flowers’, each set, that is cup, saucer and plate for cake, shows the same flower, but each set a different one, for example a blue crocus, a pink wild rose, a yellow aster in the middle with some tiny flowers around. Each piece is painted by hand. ‘Differences in details, usually hardly noticeable, elicit the aura of authenticity and uniqueness for the connoisseur, a special aura that has made Meissen famous throughout the world.’ (from the homepage)

The manufactory has always trained its own people, modelers, turners, formers and painters. They don’t attain the highest skills before about 10 years of professional practice. How utterly frustrating! You practice your skills for such a long time and must suppress your creativity, because you’re only good if you can paint the same way as generations before you did, if you don’t, your piece is sold at a lower price as second-choice.

My mocha service is called Full Green Circle of Wine Leaves and is one of the most famous of the manufactory. It was developed in 1817 and has been made ever since. The handles of the cups and the coffee pot have the shape of the neck of a swan the beak holding the rim. Beside the service I have twelve large flat plates, six deep plates for soup, two bowls, a sauce boat, a tea pot and a tiny vase for one or two snow drops with the same design.

The story of my services is closely connected with the history of the GDR, the late German Democratic Republic. To the chagrin of the population the porcelain was produced nearly exclusively for export in order to earn money for the state. Only very rarely some pieces were sold, but then only poorer quality. The cups, saucers and plates of some services have a gold rim, the ones which were sold in the GDR had only a yellow one.

People were not without money in the GDR, but often they didn’t know what to spend it on. They couldn’t travel freely (only to the socialist brother states, in the end not even there), had to wait for a car for 12 (twelve!) years, and luxury goods weren’t on offer. People were hungry for beauty, though, the prevailing sensation being one of drabness. So when porcelain from Meissen was to be sold, yellow rim or not, people used to queue all night long. That’s how the Field Flowers came into my possession.

When I was ten years old, my mother and I left the GDR clandestinely, mainly because I wouldn’t have been allowed to go to secondary school. What does clandestinely mean? In our case we got a passport for summer hols in West Germany, which was still possible then, and just didn’t return. My grandmother was informed and the minute we had left she appeared with a van and cleared the flat.

Back to the porcelain. How did it reach us? Of course, it was strictly forbidden to send it by post. My grandmother was allowed, as were all old age pensioners, to travel to West Germany (the state hoped they would stay there so that they didn’t have to pay the pensions) brought us the services, piece by piece. It’s clear that that was forbidden as well, but my grandmother was clever. She was enormously fat and had always something to eat on her lap when the police came to control the travellers at the inner German border. The cups, saucers or plates were inside her food parcels.

The biggest wave of emigration (is it emigration when people flee to the same country?) was in the 1960s, which then led to the building of the Wall. People didn’t get passports any more, they just left. They left with what they wore, nothing else, and came across the Green Border, as we call it in German, meaning through the woods in Germany, the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary .

In case they didn’t have relatives who cleared their flats, the police came and auctioned off their belongings. That led to the absurd situation that for some years hardly any new porcelain from Meissen could be bought and if so, only for a horrendous price, but on the other hand old (and more valuable) porcelain flooded the market and could be bought for an ‘apple and an egg‘, which is the German equivalent for dirt cheap or next to nothing. Clever Grandma bought the wine leaves service at such an auction. By then my (fat!) aunt had become an OAP as well, and the two of them transported also this service to West Germany in the manner described above.

When you go to Meissen you can visit the Schauhalle (exhibition hall) as do 300.000 people every year. The items on display are of every imaginable size, from thimbles and large animal sculptures to dinner and tea sets, candlesticks and vases almost seven feet high. An estimated 150.000 articles can be produced to order, the collection of the Schauhalle amounts to over 20.000 pieces, about 3.000 items are selected each year and put on display to the public.

Are you thinking of buying something, of spending your money on something exquisite? I informed myself in a shop in our town which sells Porcelain from Meissen. Two figurines, a soldier with a three-cornered-hat, probably a Frenchman, trying to embrace a pretty peasant girl who is flirtatiously turning away from him and a dog dancing around the two, approximately 15 cm high (6 inches), cost ~ 2.365 dollars.

You abstain from the purchase because you wouldn’t know what to do with such a statuette (in German we have the nickname dustcatcher for them)? The novel ‘Utz’ by Bruce Chatwin can help you here. Chatwin worked at Sotheby’s for some years before he became a full time writer and got to know some strange collectors. In his novel he makes his main protagonist play with porcelain statuettes from Meissen, performing plays on a little stage. If you’re still looking for a hobby...


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