Mad for Meissen

A 19th-century philosopher called Meissen porcelain "frozen music." Candice Gianetti explains why it still is.

In her sunny studio at the Meissen Porcelain Manufactory, Gudrun Gaube has a bulletin board covered in a patchwork of roses—scraps clipped from Japanese seed catalogues and travel magazines and sketches made in neighbors' gardens. She stands before it, seeking inspiration for new flower designs that will find themselves at the bottom of an exquisitely crafted teacup or strewn across a luminous white dinner plate. Elsewhere, master painter Christian Schöppler searches through drawers spilling over with yellowed 18th-century prints—hunting and harbor scenes, picnicking courtiers à la Watteau— for the one he will reproduce on the side of a monumental urn. Down the hall, figurine painters sit in artist workspaces, each surrounded by a palette with dabs of color chosen from more than 10,000 secret formulas, a bouquet of paintbrushes in every size, and figures at various stages of completion (so the artist can work on the Monkey Orchestra conductor's crimson tailcoat while the platinum accents on Titania's flower-encrusted mane dry). Meanwhile, as other hands mix the raw materials of the clay—kaolin, quartz, and feldspar—in a recipe divined by an alchemist, the kilns fire a new crop of Meissen to the high temperatures that render it exceptionally hard and pristinely white, first steps on the path to creating what is arguably the world's finest porcelain.

With subtle variations and a few name changes, so it has been for three centuries. While economic pressures have forced much of the industrial world to mechanize and shortcut its way to a profitable mediocrity, Meissen—Europe's first maker of hard-paste porcelain, founded in 1710 in a little medieval town outside Dresden—has stubbornly held fast to its standards of handcrafting every piece from start to finish. As a result, despite some bad patches caused by a few wars, the Industrial Revolution, and a regime change or two, the company has outlasted most of its imitators (28 of which sprang up in Germany alone, based on knowledge stolen from absconding Meissen workers) and through it all has maintained "the consistently highest quality in German porcelain," says Christina Prescott-Walker, European ceramics specialist at Sotheby's New York, who also lauds Meissen's history of innovation in design and its "amazing range."

Amazing indeed. Today nearly every object ever created here is still in production—175,000 in all, each finished off with a flourish of blue brush strokes: the company's famous trademark, crossed swords lifted from the Saxon Elector's coat of arms. The earliest designs are imitations of the Chinese and Japanese pieces that flooded into Europe in the 17th century, firing the passions of royals, who began creating entire Porcelain Rooms in their palaces to showcase their collections. (It was their mad race to discover the secret formula for the costly Asian ware that ultimately led to the founding of Meissen by Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, after the poor alchemist Johann Friedrich Böttger—imprisoned by Augustus and failing to make gold as ordered—turned his efforts instead to making "white gold," with happier results.) Later came Baroque, Rococo, Classical, Neoclassical, Biedermeier, Impressionist, Art Deco and Nouveau . . . you name an art style, and there'll likely be a piece or ten of Meissen made in it.

Across these styles are hundreds of porcelain animals, from little pug knickknacks to a life-size fox. Characters from mythology, history, and the Ballets Russes. A Parisian selling mussels, a Chinese woman riding an elephant, and lots of German children gardening. Figures so finely delineated, in "poses sculpted so beautifully," says Manhattan's Nathan Krishtul, a longtime professional restorer and private collector of porcelain, "that they are absolutely alive: they breathe, they have muscles." And not just figurines, dishes, and vases, but snuffboxes, pens, scent bottles; handles for flatware, canes, and pipes; amazing chess sets (Max Esser's 1923 Sea Beasts, Strang's 1986 Heaven and Hell); even a chandelier as tall and big around as any respectable Christmas tree.

As for the dinner services, there are over 300 to choose from. Blue Onion is simple elegance, an Oriental-motif, cobalt-on-white pattern that brings to mind Oscar Wilde's famous quip "I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my blue china." Created in 1739, it was Meissen's first success in duplicating the Asian technique of the coveted blue underglaze (painting on absorbent porcelain rather than on top of glaze). Still Meissen's most popular service, Blue Onion has more than 750 pieces, including an egg timer, a rolling pin, multitiered fruit stands, and a dozen different candelabra.

But this is far from Meissen's most profligate set. That honor goes to the Rococo 1737 Swan service, with swans gliding across waves, herons, dolphins, reeds, and other water motifs. Comprising more than 2,000 pieces, it includes vast centerpieces, goblets designed specifically to hold oranges (a great delicacy then), and an extraordinary tureen (still in production) with dolphins as feet, mermaids as handles, and a lid topped by sea nymphs ($14,681). For another kind of extravagance, there's 1,001 Nights, a highly decorated and gilded service so expensive ($4,464 a place setting) that it's hard to imagine anyone daring to actually eat from it. Designed in 1969 by Professor Heinz Werner, the service is more a collection of miniature art works, each piece illustrating one of 224 scenes from the book.

New pieces are carefully added to the repertoire every year. Dinnerware introductions are designed to reflect more contemporary tastes, addressing a complaint sometimes heard that Meissen has spent too many years repeating past glories and has not moved with the times. With its clean, modern sensibility, the Waves service, a less-decorated and therefore less-expensive pattern ($171 a place setting in all-white relief, versus $452 for Blue Onion or $1,032 for the fully gold-accented Court Dragon pattern), has taken off in the United States, where Meissen is less known than it is in Europe or Japan. Unless they've grown up with their grandmother's Meissen, it often takes people time, a history lesson, and close proximity to appreciate Meissen's superior qualities. A new lobster service has a lifelike and practically life-size lobster painted across the plate ($350), a lemon-water bowl with lemons at the bottom ($135), and a sauce dish with a crab crawling across it (in three sizes, $25-$35). Other "lifestyle" items—sushi plates and muesli bowls, coffee mugs and big round café-au-lait cups—are getting a big push this year. A coffee mug as a way to bring luxury into your workplace (and one collector swears that coffee does taste better in a Meissen mug).

Though much of their output is strictly made to order, Paul Prem, who recently stepped down after a dozen years as Meissen's sales director to organize a shop in Vienna, says, "about 40,000 of the pieces we make regularly." Because each piece is hand-worked, 75 percent of annual sales, which totaled $44 million in 2001, goes just to pay for labor. This attention to detail gives Meissen's 600 highly trained modelers and painters (who after at least three years of apprenticeship in the factory's own school, and often additional art studies at university, go on to specialize in painting just flowers or landscapes or animals) room to accommodate a certain amount of custom work. You may be able to have the chrysanthemums on your plate painted pale-peach or celadon-green to match your dining-room wallpaper (there are, after all, 10,000 shades to choose from) or order a large plate with just a band of color at the rim to sit quietly beneath a smaller, more decorated plate.

Meissen's vast working repertoire is unrivaled among competitors at this rarefied level of handcrafting—of which there are, understandably, few. Among them are two fellow survivors from the "golden age" of porcelain: Royal Copenhagen, where all those lovely holes in the Flora Danica dinner service have been punched out by hand since 1790; and Nymphenburg, founded in 1747 and noted for graceful 18th-century commedia dell'arte figurines by Franz Anton Bustelli, as well as contemporary dinnerware designs by guest artists like jewelry designer Ted Muehling.

According to Prem, though, "our biggest competitor is ourself," a reference to the large number of antique Meissen pieces floating in and out of shops and auction houses—it's hard-paste porcelain, after all, and expensive enough to be handled with care over the years. (The company insists that its modern pieces with underglaze painting are dishwasher-safe, but the temptation to hand-wash a $135 Blue Onion plate or a $135 Vine Leaf teacup and saucer must be strong.)

Most die-hard collectors, of course, prefer originals, especially those from the factory's first four decades—generally considered the high point of Meissen's creativity—and its two most important artists: figure modeler Johann Joachim Kaendler (at Meissen from 1731 to 1775) and painting master Johann Gregorius Höroldt (1720-65). And there are a lot of serious hoarders out there. One was the inspiration for the title character in Bruce Chatwin's 1988 novel Utz, set in Cold War Czechoslovakia: "He had found his vocation: he would devote his life to collecting—'rescuing,' as he came to call it—the porcelains of the Meissen factory . . . When his friend Dr. Orlik suggested they both flee to the West, Utz pointed to the ranks of Meissen figurines . . . and said, 'I cannot leave them.' " Utz ultimately destroys them all rather than let them fall into Nazi hands. In real life, Rudolph Just's collection survived the war; in 2001, sleuths at Sotheby's London tracked it down and got the heirs to dig the pieces out of storage, and auctioned them off (with other of Just's art works) for more than $2 million. Another collector, Karl Lagerfeld, commissioned Meissen to create hundreds of wafer-thin porcelain discs to sew onto two gowns for the Chanel spring-summer '98 haute couture collection.

Like many experts, New York-based porcelain dealer Jill Fenichell feels that, while in Meissen reproductions "the porcelain itself is still unbelievably beautiful, a certain delicacy is lacking in the painting. And of course when you're producing something for a king and your life depends on his liking it," she adds with a laugh, referring to the early days of Meissen under the autocratic Augustus the Strong and his son, Augustus III, "it's amazing what you can come up with!" And oddly enough, because of Meissen's high labor costs (which have soared since unification, according to Prem), you just may spend two or three times as much for today's reproductions as for originals or earlier copies. Nevertheless, Helene Schwalberg, who's been selling mainly antiques at The Meissen Shop in Palm Beach for 25 years, says that people buy the new pieces from her—whether entire dinner services or pieces to mix in with antique sets, like a platter to replace a broken one or a missing member of the Monkey Orchestra.

Have a look at Meissen, and see if it moves you to feel, as Schopenhauer did, that "porcelain is frozen music." And if you covet a Kaendler Harlequin or a chocolate pot in chinoiserie by Höroldt and can't bear to wait years for it to show up on the antiques market, you can get a spectacular new one in a few months, or today. In your favorite color.

Pieces range from $33 for a small white bud vase to $60,000 for a Kaendler lion three feet long. Five-piece place settings: $170-$4,460; figurines: $270-$1,890; 212-696-9236 and 866-977-9236;

Visiting Meissen

Meissen welcomes visitors to its factory, 20 miles outside Dresden, where it has been since relocating from Augustus' castle in 1863. Highlights include:

THE MUSEUM A collection of 20,000 pieces from all periods is shown 3,000 works at a time. Admission: $5. May—October, 9 a.m.-6 p.m.; November—April, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.

THE TOUR During 35-minute demonstration workshops, visitors observe various steps in the painting process (including the application of the Blue Onion pattern), the modeling of figures, and the creation of clay flowers.

OPEN DAYS One day each spring and autumn (next: October 18), you can tour the factory itself, looking over the shoulders of workers and visiting the kiln area.

ORGAN CONCERTS Every Friday (May-October at 5:30 p.m. and November-April at 4:30 p.m.), concerts are given on the world's only porcelain pipe organ, invented here. More formal evening concerts are held once a month.

PAINTING AND CREATIVITY SEMINARS Three- to five-day seminars (year-round; $250-$555) demonstrate the intricate art of painting on porcelain.

THE SHOP Of course! Well stocked and nicely presented.

Meissen, 9 Talstrasse, Meissen, Germany; 49-3521-468-700;

Where to Buy

NEW YORK BERGDORF GOODMAN Their fine-china department sells dinnerware, vases, and a Sea Beasts chess set. 754 5th Avenue; 212-753-7300. SOTHEBY'S Two auctions devoted to 18th-century Meissen are held each May and October. 1334 York Avenue; 212-606-7176.

SAN FRANCISCO GUMP'S Three full cases of Meissen include plenty of dragon dinnerware. 135 Post Street; 415-982-1616 or 800-882-8055;

SEATTLE PORCELAIN GALLERY This shop has sold Meissen for three decades. Twenty dinnerware patterns and 100 figurines are for sale here. 2426 32nd Avenue W; 206-284-5893;

LEXINGTON, KY L.V. HARKNESS Plenty of figurines and dinner patterns are on hand, including Bluegrass, perfect for this horse country. 531 Short Street; 859-225-7474 or 866-225-7474;

PALM BEACH THE MEISSEN SHOP There are early-18th- to early-20th-century pieces here, and you can also order new pieces. By appointment only. 205 Worth Avenue; 561-832-2504;

Candice Gianetti was most recently a senior editor at Departures.