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Dresden: lusting for gold, discovering porcelain

AUGUST THE STRONG AND HIS PORCELAIN DISEASE

Some 300 years ago, the Saxon Elector Augustus the Strong developed what he called his “porcelain disease”. Obsessed, he squandered immense sums on importing pieces from China and Japan, at that time the only countries in the world with the secret of the manufacture of “white gold”. In 1701,Augustus learned that a 19-year-old apothecary, Johann Friedrich Böttger, claimed to be able to turn lead into gold.Augustus, badly in need of gold to underwrite his extravagant purchases of china, ordered the young man brought to Dresden to demonstrate.Not surprisingly, Böttger’s attempt failed.

Augustus promptly imprisoned him in the Virgin’s Bastion – underneath today’s Bruhl Terrace.Not content to let Böttger lay idle, Augustus set up a laboratory in the depths of the bastion and instructed Böttger to discover the formula for producing porcelain. Six tormented years later, in December 1707, Böttger showed Augustus the results of the first successful firing of white porcelain. He gradually perfected his technique and in 1709, officially presented his invention.

The next year,Augustus founded a porcelain factory in Dresden.To protect the secret of its production from industrial espionage, the factory and the dwellings of the employees were eventually established at Albrechtsburg Castle in nearby Meissen.The Meissen Porcelain Manufactory is still there and makes a good day trip from Dresden.

For the full, fascinating story of the invention of European porcelain, read Janet Gleeson’s book,  The Arcanum.

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