Saint Cloud bowl soft porcelain with blue decorations under glaze 1700 1710

Saint Cloud bowl soft porcelain with blue decorations – 1700 1710

While wondered around the auction floor have you ever hear people use the term “soft” or “hard” while talking about porcelain and wonder what the difference was?

Porcelain originated in China (hence where we get the commonly used term “China” or “Fine China” used sometimes as an alternative to “Porcelain” in English speaking countries) however the exact period of discovery is under debate. Porcelain; whether hard or soft falls under the category of “Ceramics” along with Earthenware and Pottery to name a few. The prevailing difference between the two is found in the “firing” temperature required to heat and set the materials.

Hard- paste porcelain is characterized by its translucent and bright white colouring after firing. The porcelain has a higher resistance to water compared to its counterpart and is less likely to crack when the object comes in contact with hot liquids or substances. This is due to the higher firing temperature required; roughly around 1400 degrees C compared to soft porcelain which only required 1200 degrees C.

Soft Porcelain required a lower firing temperature due to the chemical makeup of the materials. The body tends to lose its shape and almost melt when exposed to higher temperatures in the kiln. Soft paste porcelain is a finer and/or more delicate product as an end result, requiring a glaze to seal the finished product. However a benefit to the lower temperature allows the manufacturer or artists to have a greater pallet of colours to choose from for the decoration.

Although both of these techniques yield a different end product they both maintain one key ingredient as their base, kaolin clay. Sometimes referred to as “China Clay” this mineral is the base of Chinese porcelain, and derives its name from the Chinese “Kao-ling” a village near Jingdezhen known as “the Porcelain Capital”.


Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus 1651 – 1708

To truly understand the difference, we need to go back to Europe in the 16th and 17th Century. During this time of increasing trade and exploration of the east, Europeans were becoming increasingly aware of the different arts and commodities which were being brought back from the Orient and in this case specifically China. The Chinese had already been producing Porcelain of exceptional high standards on a mass production level for centuries by the time Europeans were exposed. The First development of porcelain in Europe is associated with the experimental manufacturing of a form of soft-paste porcelain in Florence, financed under the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Francesco I de’ Medici. The house is recorded to have produced objects between 1575 and 1587, however production never achieved a commercial scale and was short lived due to advanced technologies and the high costs associated with the production. It would be another 200 years before Porcelain would become a viable commodity for Europe.

The European production of porcelain is accredited to Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus and Johann Friedrich Böttger in Saxony Germay. Böttger is noted as making the announcement in 1708 after von Tschirnhaus’ death that same year. A year later the first Porcelain manufacturing site was established in Meissen Germany, with production officially starting in 1710. Meissen maintained a monopoly on the production of Porcelain until 1717 when the formula was sold and a rival factory was established in Vienna. Not long after smaller factories began to appear, forcing Meissen to introduce it’s now iconic trademark stamp of the two crossed swords.

Experimental soft-paste porcelain of a commercial scale was developed in Rouen France and later at the Saint- Cloud factory in the late 17th to early 18th Century. Not long after factories were quick up become established; Chantilly Manufactory first in 1730 and Mennecy following in 1750. However, the most prominent factory of soft-paste porcelain was established in 1740, The Vincennes Porcelain Factory. Later adopting the name Sèvres in 1756 when the production was moved to a larger facility in the city of the same name. Four year later Sèvres was distinguished as a Royal factory under Louis XV of France and would grow to become one of the leading porcelain manufactories in Europe by the end of the 18th Century identified by the over lapping mirror image L’s.

Both factories along with hundreds of others in Western Europe and North America would go on to develop porcelain and continue the tradition, adding their own trademarks, colouring and memorable iconography, changing the way we view and use porcelain in our everyday lives.