It would make an ideal bowl for chicken soup, in particular because it is painted with roosters, hens and chicks. But with a price tag of $36.05 million, a world auction record for Chinese porcelain in 2014, the Meiyintang ‘Chicken Cup’ is not a cup you’d ever eat out of. It was crafted during the Chenghua reign (1465-87) when porcelain “quality was at its peak and quantities produced at their lowest,” according to Sotheby’s, the auction house that sold the bowl.
At that time, Europeans had discovered porcelain, but they had not yet learned how to make it. The prized material has been described as delicate, elegant and translucent, but it also boasts high durability and is nearly impermeable. So what makes porcelain so special and sets it apart from other ceramics?
What Is Porcelain?
Porcelain is a type of ceramic material that is highly durable and has high-performance characteristics due to its production process, according to Giovanni Savorani, president of Confindustria Ceramica, the Italian Association of Ceramics.
The lauded ceramic is made from a combination of clay, sand and feldspar, he explains in an email. The exact formula of raw materials varies by manufacturer, but the common element is the type of clay known as kaolin, which is nearly white in color and features a fine particle size.
Porcelain is a subset of ceramics, and both are made of clay, and both are kiln-fired. However, the clays from which porcelain is made have a higher density and are fired longer at higher temperature than other ceramics. The use of finer raw materials and the high temperatures during the firing process — up to 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit (1,260 degrees Celsius) — determine how much water is in the final product and give porcelain its durability and special water-resistant properties, Savorani explains.
China and porcelain are names used interchangeably for the same product. The term “china” was used to denote the place the porcelain was made. You may have also heard people refer to “bone china,” which is china that was made in England with one additional ingredient — actual bone. The English used the ground bone ash from farm animals to strengthen their ceramics, and to give it a milky white color according to porcelain company Noritake. Bone china can be fired at lower temperatures, so it’s easier to make and stronger, as well.
The Long History of Porcelain
Porcelain originated in China around 2,000 years ago during the Tang dynasty (618 to 907), but only in its most primitive form. It wasn’t until the Yuan dynasty (1279 to 1368) that the porcelain known in the West was developed, and that is what Marco Polo found when he arrived. The explorer introduced porcelain to Europe in the 14th century, when he took a small gray-green jar among his treasures, according to The New Yorker. He called it porcellana, which is the Italian nickname for the cowry shell.
After the 16th century, when trade routes had been established, a European market for porcelain made in China began. For centuries, manufacturing the prized material still wasn’t possible for Europeans. They couldn’t crack the recipe and guessed that it contained everything from eggshells to underground juices or that it was made through exposure to the elements for 30 or 40 years.
Finally, in the 18th century, Johann Friedrich Böttger, an alchemist, worked out the formula and founded the Meissen factory in Germany, according to Christie’s. In the 1770s, kaolin was found in Cornwall, England, so the British began crafting porcelain too. Since Böttger’s time, porcelain-making has undergone changes in the West.
“Constant technological innovation in the ceramic industry — that has largely been led by Italy — led to the birth of modern porcelain and a new family of products in the early 1990s,” Savorani says. However, the process has not changed much in terms of the materials used or the way porcelain is made.
“The biggest change lies in technology and sustainability,” Savorani explains. “With new and improved equipment, porcelain tile is now available in sizes as large as 5.25 by 10.5 feet [1.6 to 3.2 meter] and thicknesses ranging from 3 to 30 mm [0.11 to 1.1 inches] And companies are continuing to improve the efficiency of their factories, reusing 100 percent of wastewater and a large portion of waste material.”
Porcelain Products Today
Used by the Tang dynasty for teacups, plates and statues, porcelain has moved far beyond just those decorative applications. Today, durable porcelain tiles line floors, walls and building exteriors. It can be used for jewelry, as well as laboratory equipment. Even bathwares like washbasins, tubs and toilets benefit from porcelain enamel.
“There is a rich history of ceramics across multiple industries,” Timothy Schroeder, president and CEO of Duravit USA, says in an email. “It is a natural material that is sustainable in production and lifecycle. It is very durable and offers solutions of hygiene for today’s lifestyle.”
Sure, some of the products crafted from porcelain could be made from other materials, but sanitary ceramic — a type of porcelain-glazed ceramic — offers the best solution for a sustainable, modern lifestyle with health and well-being underscoring the applied material science and production developments, Schroeder says.
There are numerous benefits to choosing porcelain:
- made from natural raw materials
- easy to clean
- resistant to mold and bacterial growth
- durable and water-resistant
- good for high-traffic or moisture-prone areas
- doesn’t emit harmful substances, such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs)
- it’s recyclable and can be reused
“These are very important qualities, especially now as so many people are looking for peace of mind with materials that can help prevent the spread of bacteria within the home,” Savorani says.
Cutting and Shaping Porcelain Tile
The process of cutting porcelain depends on the thickness of the tile, explains Savorani. It’s possible to cut thin porcelain with a blade, but thicker porcelain, 0.4 inches (10 millimeters) and more, requires the use of waterjet cutting.
A wet saw, which uses water to keep the blade cool, is the industry standard for tile cutting. You can use a score-and-snap method, but cutting porcelain can be challenging, and chipped edges or scorching may result.
There are two ways to form porcelain tiles, according to Savorani. For tiles up to 4 by 4 feet (1.2 by 1.2 meters) in size, the shape is formed by special molds. Beyond that size, the process is more of a “compactor” – that is, a system that continuously presses a layer of ceramic powder, which allows for the creation of larger shapes. Porcelain products with a variety of shapes can be made through soft plastic forming, which is a manual shaping method, or with molds.
Now you won’t pay anywhere near the $36 million the Meiyintang “Chicken Cup” sold for if you’re looking to purchase porcelain, but you can expect to pay more for this fine material. For example, porcelain tile can costs as much as 60 percent more than ceramic tile, according to Home Advisor. And being a hard surface, porcelain tile typically requires professional handling and installation.
But when you take into account the aesthetics and technical benefits of porcelain compared to other materials — it’s low maintenance, eco-friendly and long-lasting — it offers a great value, Savorani explains.