When describing the translucent sheen on Chinese porcelain, the Italian explorer and merchant Marco Polo said that it resembled the shine of ‘porcellana’ (little piglet), a slang word for cowrie shells which look just like little curled up piglets.
When the Portuguese started trading with China at the beginning of the 16th century, they carried porcelains back to Europe on board their ships. The Dutch followed their lead and expanded the trade, bringing porcelains and other oriental goods into the docks in Amsterdam and London. In the first 50 years of the 17th century, more than three million pieces of Chinese porcelain (including thousands of teapots, tea bowls and saucers) were imported into Europe, and customers for these exquisite tablewares included King Henry IV of France and James I of England.
European potters were eager to produce similar ceramics for themselves but only managed to manufacture earthenwares covered with an opaque glaze and early ‘soft-paste’ porcelains, made from a mixture of clay, ground glass, soapstone, and lime, and fired at much lower temperatures than the Chinese hard-paste porcelains.
Hard paste porcelains are made of a mixture of Kaolin (china clay) and petuntse (china stone) and are fired at temperatures as high as 1350˚ C – 1400˚ C to fuse the materials and make the final product much harder and stronger.
The breakthrough for European potters came when two German alchemists, Johann Friedrich Bottger and Walther Von Tschirnhaus, discovered the secret of kaolin for themselves. A local source of kaolin clay was then discovered close to the German city of Meissen and the first European hard paste porcelain, containing kaolin cay and alabaster, was manufactured there in 1710. Alabaster was later replaced by feldspar (a common mineral that makes up approximately 60% of the earth’s crust) and quartz. These, and Kaolinite are still important ingredients for hard paste porcelains. The Germans kept the kaolin secret to themselves and potters elsewhere on the continent went on experimenting while the trade with China continued to grow.
In 1741, ships belonging to the British, Danish, French, and Swedish brought a total of 1,200,000 pieces of Chinese porcelain into the European ports. A good portion of those pieces ended up in the fine homes of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston.
Read more about the history of tea in A Social History of Tea by Jane Pettigrew and Bruce Richardson (2014 Benjamin Press).