The Arcanum

Janet Gleeson

Read July 2003

This is the story of Europe's reinvention of the manufacture of porcelain.  The Chinese had been there first, and when porcelain became a hot ticket item in Europe, people began to notice how much money was flowing east, and sought to keep some of it for themselves.  It's hardly surprising that the man who recreated the manufacturing process was an alchemist; indeed, he worked on porcelain to keep his patron, Augustus of Saxony, from putting him to sword for failing to deliver on his promises of gold.  (The Arcanum of the subject, specifically, is the formula for manufacturing porcelain.  In an era before patent laws, these formulae were... worth their weight in gold?)

I had never really considered porcelain all that attractive; my eyes have typically found it all too easy to ignore the row upon row of cheesy little decorative pieces at museums.  This book entirely changed my perspective on the ceramic; I'm looking forward to my next opportunity to see it, almost literally in a new light.  I'm also better informed about its manufacture and value, and a bit about its history.  Credit for all this goes to Gleeson's nice little book.

Yet Gleeson too often gives the impression of knowing more than she says.  The book would have been much richer for a more detailed description of porcelain and its use in art, making it a worthwhile companion on a museum trip.  Also, there is a good deal of economics that she seems to know but doesn't discuss.  How did the porcelain market survive?  Reading the book, you learn that Augustus, while still hankering for gold, was making a healthy sum out of porcelain, but also that many parallel manufactories soon sprang up around Europe to compete with the ur-factory in Meissen.  Presumably porcelain held its high value because (a) it had a cache of class by association with wealth, and (b) it was hard to obtain (the former depending somewhat on the latter).  It's easy to understand the wealthy bourgeois of the 18th century wanting to own what previously only kings posessed, but once it became essentially commonplace, what kept up its value?  How did anyone make a profit from it at all?  I wish Gleeson had said.

(This neglect of economics is especially disappointing from one who has also written about that very subject.)