What Is Porcelain and Why Is It So Expensive?

That explains why Memaw’s collection of figurines could be worth an impressive sum.

From favorite bowls to beloved figurines to heirloom ceramics, heck, even the kitchen sink, porcelain is part of many a Southern home. We've all heard of porcelain. We've all used porcelain. Many of us grew up dusting the Lladró porcelain at Grandma's house. Despite the ubiquity of porcelain, have you ever wondered what porcelain is exactly? And why it costs so much? Let us explain.

Porcelain making is an old art. The earliest porcelain, commonly called "primitive porcelain," appeared during the Shang Dynasty (1600 to 1046 B.C.), according to UNESCO, but the first true porcelain was produced over a thousand years later during the Eastern Han Dynasty, around 202 B.C. – 220 A.D. It was brought to Europe by Marco Polo who picked a small gray-green jar during his travels in the 14th century, according to The New Yorker. European craftsmen set about trying to emulate the Chinese artform, but it took them until the late 18th century to figure out how to make porcelain. That was when a book called L'art de la Porcelaine was published, per The Spruce Crafts, and only when the recipe for making porcelain was written in a book were Europeans truly able to crack the code and open their own porcelain factories.

Porcelain Dog Figurine on White Background

According to the Ceramic Dictionary, there are six types of porcelain: dental, bone, hard and soft porcelains, vitreous or glass-like porcelain, and something called steatite porcelain, designed for use in thermal insulators, car parts, and porcelain dishes that can be used directly on a gas burner. Most dishes are made from soft porcelain.

The exact composition of porcelain varies depending on its use and the manufacturer, although one common ingredient is kaolin, a soft white clay that is combined with other ingredients like bone ash, sand, magnesium, quartz, and feldspar. Reports How Stuff Works, the mixture is then shaped and fired in high heat to become hard. If that sounds a lot like how ceramics are made, you're correct. Porcelain is technically a specialized subset of ceramics, both are made of clay and kiln-fired, but porcelain uses different raw materials, glazes, and has higher density and is fired at a higher temperature of around 2,250 degrees Fahrenheit. That makes porcelain more durable and more water resistant than ceramics, UNESCO notes (and Home Depot seconds!)

As for why porcelain is more expensive than regular china, it's because making porcelain truly is an art form. Devising the mix of kaolin and other ingredients, shaping a plate to a delicate edge or sculpting a figurine, glazing it, firing it, and creating a gorgeous, nearly translucent, durable piece is incredibly difficult. So the next time your nana asks you to dust the Lladró, be careful—you're dusting a figurine that has roots going back 2,000 years.

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