Porcelain and the capital city of Limousin have become inseparable in the minds of the French. When they admire almost translucent plates decorated with elegant arabesques, they immediately think of Limoges.
Porcelain certainly made Limousin rich and famous, but this only became a reality at the end of the 18th century, when the porcelain business took a real turn.
Last year, Limousin porcelain celebrated its 250th anniversary, and now is our chance to learn more about the history of this craft that is the pride of France.
Chinese porcelain (1662-1722)
Since ancient times, porcelain has been the prerogative of China. Extremely expensive and sought-after porcelain was shipped to the courts of Europe, first along the Silk Road and then by ship along the East India route.
In the late 17th century, one European took a special interest in the production of these precious earthenware items: Father François-Xavier d'Antrecoll, a Jesuit from the French region of Limousin who had studied in China, described in detail the porcelain paste making and firing process he had witnessed.
Unfortunately, even the most skillful European craftsmen could not produce this translucent material without defects and cracks.
The secret of porcelain was discovered in 1710 in the Saxon city of Meissen. A young alchemist named Johann Böttger, unsuccessfully searching for the philosopher's stone, turned to porcelain, which was more profitable and less risky: it was a success.
The beginning of the Limousin epic
In the 1760s, a white powder was discovered near Limoges, more precisely in Saint-Hirier-la-Perche, which women sometimes used for washing.
It was actually kaolin, one of the main ingredients for making porcelain, along with quartz and feldspar. It turned out that there were numerous deposits of kaolin in the vicinity of Limoges.
Thurgot, then the intendant of Limousin, quickly realized the economic benefit of this discovery. The French court was an important market, as the king and his courtiers imported porcelain from Saxony at a high price.
The water of the Vienne kept the mills running, there was plenty of firewood in the forests, and Limoges had experienced earthenware makers: Turgot supported the project to build a factory in Limoges. In 1771, Limoges produced hard porcelain for the first time.
King Louis XV made the factory royal, which later came under the control of Count d'Artois, Louis XVI's brother.
The foresight of the people of Limoges led to the birth of this white gold that was to become a boon to the region.
The crowning glory of Limoges porcelain
After the revolution, one name was often mentioned in Limoges - François Alluaud. Owner of the Casseaux factory, he was a pioneer in the industrial development of porcelain in Limoges. He innovated and perfected technological processes and acquired all the kaolin deposits in the region.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, factories flourished in the city: about ten new companies were founded every decade. They created thousands of jobs, fed entire families and forced masters to constantly improve their skills.
Limoges porcelain became more and more famous throughout Europe, and its deposits supplied kaolin to factories in Germany, Switzerland, Russia and Northern Europe.
Manufacturers, ahead of their time
The arrival in Limoges in 1842 of New Yorker David Haviland marked a new turning point in the history of porcelain.
Under his leadership, Limoges porcelain began to be exported across the Atlantic. Americans spent enormous sums of money to obtain fine and delicate wares that they were enamored of.
Haviland also promoted porcelain in Second Empire Paris, where it was a great success. The economic return on Haviland's work allowed them to invest in even more valuable materials and improved finishes.
Industrial kiln at the Kasso
Technical innovations at the end of the century also contributed to the success of the factories.
In 1878, a new industrial kiln system was created and patented in Limoges. It allowed two firings at different temperatures in one kiln. One of the last kilns of this type can still be seen in Casso.
The advent of the railroad facilitated the transportation of materials and reduced the risk of breaking precious porcelain pieces for sale.
New horizons for Limoges porcelain
At the dawn of the twentieth century, the situation for Limoges porcelain took a turn for the worse. The economic crisis of 1905 shook the industry, a series of industrial actions and violent strikes jeopardized production. In the following decades, two world wars and the crisis of 1929 severely shook the industry's fortunes.
Beginning in the 1980s, manufacturers experienced a deep and prolonged crisis caused by relentless competition from Asian manufacturers and the relocation of shops.
Several factories closed, fewer buyers came to Limoges, and Limoges porcelain, like many other arts and crafts products, became a niche market. However, this did not prevent its inclusion in 2008 in the Inventory of the Intangible Heritage of France.
Today, Limoges porcelain is certainly a symbol of excellence of the great French craft houses such as Haviland and Bernardaud, but it is also at the cutting edge of innovation in the technical, medical and military fields, as it possesses many unknown properties.
Limoges porcelain is a unique work of art that combines centuries of tradition and modern technology. It is an integral part of French culture and heritage.