Porcelain: A Brief History of Porcelain as well as Types & How to Tell the Difference Between Porcelain & Ceramic

A Brief History of Porcelain

From its advent in Ancient China to its adoption and use in Europe, Porcelain has a long and storied history.

It was first invented in China – in a primitive form during the Tang dynasty (618–907) and in the form best known in the West during the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368).

Porcelain’s secrets were guarded by its Chinese inventors.

The Chinese believed it held powerful magic with the ability to negate poison or to detect it when it was present within the vessel.

Porcelain slowly spread to other East Asian countries, then to Europe, and eventually to the rest of the world.

The European name, porcelain in English, comes from the old Italian Porcellana (cowrie shell) because of its resemblance to the surface of the shell.

Porcelain is also referred to as China or Fine China in some English-speaking countries, as it was first seen in imports from China during the 17th century.

Its manufacturing process is more demanding than that of earthenware and stoneware, the two other main types of pottery, and it has usually been regarded as the most prestigious type of pottery for its delicacy, strength, and its white color.

It combines well with both glazes and paint and can be modeled very well, allowing a huge range of decorative treatments in tableware, vessels, and figurines.

Types of Porcelain

Hard Paste (True) Porcelain – made from petuntse, or china stone (a feldspathic rock), ground to powder and mixed with kaolin (white china clay). During the firing, at a temperature of about 2,650 °F, the petuntse vitrified*, while the kaolin ensured that the object retained its shape.

Soft Paste (Artificial) Porcelain – a mixture of clay and ground glass requiring a “softer” firing (about 2,200 °F) than hard-paste porcelain.

Although there is a superficial resemblance, Soft Paste Porcelain can generally be distinguished from Hard Paste Porcelain by its softer body.

Soft Paste Porcelain can be cut with a file, for example, whereas Hard Paste Porcelain cannot.

The first European soft-paste porcelain was made in Florence in about 1575 at workshops under the patronage of Francesco I de’ Medici, but it was not until the late 17th and 18th centuries that it was produced in quantity.

The secret of Hard Paste Porcelain was discovered about 1707 at the Meissen factory in Saxony by Johann Friedrich Böttger and Ehrenfried Walter von Tschirnhaus.

The standard English bone china body was produced around 1800 when Josiah Spode II added calcined bones to the hard-paste porcelain formula.

Although hard-paste porcelain is strong, its vitreous nature causes it to chip fairly easily, whereas bone china does not.

Hard Paste porcelain is preferred on the European continent, whereas bone china is preferred in Britain and the United States.

Porcelain v. Ceramic

Ceramics and Porcelain are both made from a similar material and process – both are made from clay and fired in a kiln.

The difference comes from the firing of the material and the fineness of the material it is made with.

Porcelain is made from a more finely processed, denser clay with ingredients that vitrify, sets harder, and is fired at higher temperatures in the kiln.

Ceramics are made with a less dense, course material and fired at a lower temperature making the resulting wares less durable.

Ceramics in the hand will feel lighter as well as sound hollow.

Porcelain will ring much like crystal when tapped or “dinged” along the rim or sides.