The Saxon company Meissen and its blue crossed-swords trademark are synonymous with high-quality porcelain as befits the company that initiated porcelain production in Germany and Europe.
It was long the dream of Europeans to produce porcelain similar to the white gold that was imported at great expense into Europe from China. However, the discovery of the production secrets of porcelain came totally by accident. It was in Saxony, under the orders to produce real gold, that porcelain was first produced in Europe.
First European Porcelain Produced in Dresden, Saxony
In the early 18th century, alchemist Johann Friedrich Böttger had to flee for his life from Prussia after failing to perfect the alchemist dream of producing gold. August the Strong, King of Poland and Prince Elector of Saxony, was quick to arrest Böttger, refused to extradite him to the Prussian king, and imprisoned him with the order to produce gold, or else…
Böttger of course failed but on January 15, 1708, he managed to produce the first hard porcelain in Europe. (His colleague Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus, who died the same year, was probably the actual inventor.) In 1709, Böttger succeeded in producing white porcelain in Dresden and in 1710 full-scale production of porcelain started in the Albrechtsburg Castle in nearby Meißen.
- In contrast to the town name Meißen, Meissen porcelain uses a regular double “ss”.
Despite keeping workers almost as prisoners in the Albrechtsburg, the production secrets of porcelain was soon sold to other European powers. Porcelain was produced in Vienna less than a decade later and soon after French, Russian, and endless German porcelains were produced in Europe to compete with imported porcelain from China and Japan.
Producing porcelain rather than gold worked out pretty nicely for Johann Friedrich Böttger. Not only did he break the Asian monopoly on producing porcelain, which was in high demand in Europe, but furthermore, his sponsor (and jailer) was an absolute porcelain fanatic. Augustus the Strong once famously exchanged 600 Saxon dragoons (soldiers) for large blue-and-white porcelain vases (and a few smaller pieces, 151 in total) owned by Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm I. Much of the profits from Meissen porcelain production was spent on buying even more Asian porcelain.
- The Saxon king’s porcelain collection came close to 15,000 pieces – many of these antique porcelain works are on display in the Porzellansammlung (Porcelain Collection) in the Zwinger in Dresden.
Celebrating 300 Years of Meissen Porcelain in Saxony
To commemorate the 300 year of porcelain production by Meissen, Dresden and Meißen (together with Meissen) are arranging a three-year celebration program appropirately called – “300 Years of Meissen Porcelain”. The main venues have excellent permanent porcelain exhibitions but will add special displays and events during these memorial years.
20,000 Porcelain Pieces of the Porzellansammlung (Porcelain Collection) in the Zwinger, Dresden
The foremost venue in the 300 Years of Meissen Porcelain Program is the Porzellansammlung (Porcelain Collection) in the Zwinger museum complex in Dresden. It is the largest porcelain museum in the world with over 20,000 pieces including around 8,000 made by Meissen. Around 2,000 porcelain pieces, including plates, cups, figurines, and the famous Dragoon Vases are on permanent display. A Meissen-porcelain Glockenspiel (carillon) plays in the gate tower outside the museum.
Meissen National Porcelain Factory, Meißen
The Staatliche Porzellan-Manufaktur Meissen, Talstraße 9, Meißen, is the producer of Meissen porcelain and the on-site museum has more than 20,000 pieces. The composition of the display of around 3,000 pieces is changed every year. A demonstration workshop, but not the actual manufacturing plant, can be visited with audio guides available in numerous languages.
Albrechtsburg, Meißen – the Original Meissen Factory
Meissen porcelain was produced in the Late Gothic Albrechtsburg Castle, Meißen, from 1710 to 1865. The museum has a permanent exhibition on Böttger and his unsuccessful attempt to produce gold, as well as the role of the castle in the manufacturing of porcelain. However, very little actual porcelain is seen in the permanent displays.
Sächsische Porzellan-Manufaktur Dresden
Less famous, and with a history of only 135 years, is the Sächsische Porzellan-Manufaktur Dresden (Saxon Porcelain Manufacture), Carl-Thieme-Straße 16, Freital, near Dresden. It uses the S&P Dresden porcelain trademark and prices are generally much lower than the more famous Meissen Porcelain. Factory tours are available.
Full details on the “300 Years of Meissen Porcelain” program, which includes special exhibitions, lectures, and even gourmet dinners served on historic porcelain, are available from the Dresden Tourism Office.
Dresden Airport (DRS) can be reached cheaply on non-stop flights from many German and European cities. Several other interesting sights including Meißen, Schloss Moritzburg Castle, the Saxon Switzerland area, as well as Festung Königstein Fortress are all within easy reach of Dresden when using public transportation.