The Privilege of Decoration

Words by Gianluca Longo
Images by Guido Taroni

In the early 18th century, Europeans were involved in a frantic race to find the ‘arcanum’ of porcelain: the exact formula that created the whiteness and transparency visible in the marvelous ware from the Far East. This search had become essential as a result of changes in dining fashions under Louis XIV and, in particular, because of the introduction of tea, coffee and chocolate to European courts.

In France, they developed a kind of soft paste porcelain in Saint Cloud that was distinguished by an ivory tint with decorations on shades of blues, probably in imitation of Japanese Kakiemon.

Louis XV decided to transform soft-paste porcelain into a proper industry in France. This began in 1740, after the death of Louis Henri, Duc de Bourbon and Prince de Condé, patron of the porcelain factory at Chantilly; a number of his workers were given permission to continue their experiments. They sold the secret of this porcelain to Louis XV’s Intendant des Finances, who found a way of making porcelain with an extraordinarily pure white color. To produce it in quantity, they founded the factory of Vincennes, in a disused tower of the royal chateau.

Supported by Louis XV, the creations of Vincennes moved from imitation to pure invention, establishing the factory as one of the leading manufacturers of porcelain in Europe. Louis XV granted his royal privileges to it, authorizing Vincennes to stamp its wares with the royal monogram of a double L.

In 1756 the manufacture was transferred from Vincennes to a site near the Marquise de Pompadour’s property in Sèvres, where it was taken under her personal patronage. In 1800, Alexandre Brongniart became Director of the Manufacture de Sèvres and he began modernizing the establishment. He set up additional workshops, created new skills, and founded the ceramics museum. In 1876 the factory was transferred to buildings specially constructed for it along the Seine, on land taken from the grounds of Parc de Saint Cloud, in the Parisian suburbs. In 1920, the Treaty of Sèvres, the peace treaty between the Ottoman Empire and Allies at the end of the First World War, was signed at the factory. And in 2010 the Cité de la céramique de Sèvres was established.

In these premises, 130 ceramists work in 27 work-shops, practice about 30 crafts and produce thousands of pieces each year. The porcelain pastes are still made in the ‘mill;’ the tournage is carried out manually on a spinning wheel, in two successive phases, that are only practiced at Sèvres.

Each porcelain object is meticulously fashioned and then decorated by hand; the pastillage, the technique for direct modeling of flowers, leaves and other ornaments on biscuit, has been handed down from generation to generation; the colors are still made in-house and delivered in powder form to the workshops—each porcelain paste has its own palette of colors: the “Sèvres blue,” is obtained by an accumulation of three layers evened out using a badger brush.

And the magot depot stores some 90,000 moulds, kept as a treasure, dating back to the factory’s origins. They, silently, bear witness to the process of the Manufacture of Sèvres porcelain.

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