Arcanum - mysterious knowledge, language or information accessible only to the initiate; elixir. - Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary
As the Age of Reason dawned, some of the finest minds in 18th-century Europe were on a serious mission. They hoped to discover the secret formula for transforming base metal into gold. Charlatans and nobelmen competed with kings in an epic quest for the Arcanum.
Augustus the Strong, King of Poland and elector of Saxony, had a passion for amassing beautiful objects and artifacts. But the ruler's funds were diminishing rapidly, even as his appetite for objets d'art grew.
A young alchemist called Johann Frederick Bottger seemed to be the answer to his prayers. Bottger's claims that he could produce gold intrigued the king. But suspicious of Bottger's motives, the king threw him in a dungeon in Dresden. The king promised him his freedom if he could find the Arcanum.
Alas, the young man's efforts proved futile. After years of failing to create gold, Bottger stumbled upon the formula for another precious commodity: porcelain, the pure white translucent ceramic from China.
Early in the 18th-century, porcelain was produced only in the Far East, primarily in China and Japan. While silk, lacquer and spices were imported to Europe via the Silk Road - the overland route from Asia to the West - porcelain was too fragile to survive the journey. The few pieces that arrived in the West were shipped by Arab traders through the Gulf of Arabia or the Red Sea. Organised trade existed only on a limited scale until after Vasco da Gama's voyage of discovery in 1497 opened a sea route to China.
Porcelain was regarded by Westerners as a coveted rarity of the Orient. The porcelain's rare blend of fragility and glittering hardness made it impossible to cut by ordinary steel. The few pieces that have survived were often given to rulers as papal or diplomatic gifts.
As porcelain became more popular, it was imported in larger quantities. The fashion spread from mainland Europe across the English Channel where, English writer Daniel Defoe noted, porcelain was introduced by Queen Mary. He said the Queen had sanctioned "the custom or humour, as I may call it, of furnishing houses with chinaware, which increased to a strange degree afterwards, piling their china upon the tops of cabinets... and every chimney-piece, to the tops of the ceilings and even setting up shelves for their chinaware...till it became a grievance in the expense of it and even injurious to their families and estates."
Although Mary's fondness for china contributed to its popularity, the fashion was begun before she was crowned in 1689. Queen Elizabeth I encouraged her naval captains to appropriate Spanish ships bearing treasure from the East whenever possible.
Saxony's ruler Augustus was a shrewd buyer for expensive and rare porcelain, sending representatives to buy pieces whenever a private collection came onto the market or a ship's cargo was to be auctioned. In the first year of his reign, he is said to have spent a large fortune acquiring porcelain for his royal collection.
The Oriental porcelain Augustus favoured was made from the sixth century in the northern regions of China in the Hebei province. Western travelers had long tried to learn their secrets, without success. Bottger experimented with various kaolin clays and alabasters before finding the correct formula that rivaled Chinese porcelain in its beauty.
Bottger regarded porcelain as a precious material equal to gold or silver, having little in common with other forms of utilatarian ceramics. Augustus agreed to sponsor a porcelain factory, but continued to press Bottger to find the formula for making gold.
Information for this piece was compiled from magazine articles and books on French and Chinese porcelain. Read more research-driven pieces at Sunday Scribblings.