A visit to Weimar's antiques stores offers a chance to buy porcelain, silver, crystal, and furniture that survived the devastation of World War II. An attractive source for mostly 18th- and 19th-century German antiques, with everything from farmhouse rustic to the kind of high-style pieces you might have expected at Friedrich the Great's Sanssouci, can be found at Thiersch Antiquitäten, Bräuhausgasse 15 (tel. 03643/402540).
State-of-the-Art China: Meissen Porcelain
by George McDonald
In 2010, Meissen celebrated its 300th anniversary as a center for the manufacture of quality porcelain. Since 1710, the Elbe River town has been the home of Meissen porcelain, and you can visit the factory where it's produced to witness a demonstration of the traditional art of making and hand-painting so-called "Dresden" china. Meissen is just 24km (15 miles) downriver from Dresden, and the name of the larger city, which was the capital of Saxony's royal house, has attached itself indelibly to Meissen's pride and joy. The early makers of this "white gold" were virtually held prisoner here because the princes who ruled both Dresden and Meissen carefully guarded the secret to its production.
Meissen porcelain got its start when the Saxon ruler Augustus the Strong, a patron of the arts and a fanatical porcelain collector (he owned almost 15,000 pieces) commissioned the alchemist Johann Friedrich Böttger to transmute gold from base metals. That project went nowhere, naturally, but with the aid of scientist Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus, Böttger successfully produced Chinese-style porcelain instead. That was enough to keep Augustus happy, since expensive Chinese porcelain had long bedazzled Europe, and until Böttger and von Tschirnhaus got to work, had resisted the best efforts of European craftsmen to re-create it.
The new homegrown china was made inside Meissen's medieval Albrechtsburg castle until 1865, when production shifted to the current site overlooking the town. Most of the iconic tableware patterns sold today, such as the Swan and the cobalt-enhanced Blue Onion patterns, have been in production since the 1700s at the Staatliche Porzellan-Manufaktur Meissen (Meissen State Porcelain Manufactory). Meissen porcelain is for sale in specialized stores and by mail order, but it is far more interesting to go to the workshop in the town to see how it is made. Little has changed over the centuries, and all the ornate painting, decoration, and other effects are still done by hand. This makes Meissen porcelain pricey, but each piece is a unique product, made by craftsmen. The delicacy of the brush stroke, the richness of color, or the sheen of the glazes make the items produced by the firm so highly prized.
Art and Technique -- Despite its fragile nature -- which in the wrong hands can easily turn out to be tragic -- Meissen porcelain is technically a "hard" or "hard-paste" porcelain, made from the feldspar (ore-free) clay kaolin, also known as china clay, that's mined at a quarry in Mehren, 5km (3 miles) west of Meissen. The ingredients are mixed in a proprietary recipe and fired in a kiln at around 1,200°C (2,192°F) to produce the famous translucent white china.
Form and Content -- Among the products that have emerged from the Meissen workshop are dinner services and other tableware, human and animal figurines, clocks, candlesticks, snuffboxes, and classic Chinese and Japanese scenes and motifs. Art Nouveau and Art Deco works were produced between the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Some of the most exquisite antique pieces depict classical Greek and Roman myths and legends.
Red Porcelain -- Production of Meissen porcelain was one of Communist East Germany's few profitable industries, so the Staatliche Porzellan-Manufaktur Meissen was of great importance to the country's economy. At that time, the factory was owned by "the People," though few East German people outside of the Party elite could afford such a luxury. Purchasers from the capitalist West snapped up the china, causing demand to outstrip supply. Ownership of the factory reverted to the state of Saxony after Germany's reunification in 1990.
Real or Fake? -- To be tolerably sure that you're looking at a real piece of Meissen porcelain (though it's not an absolute guarantee), look on the bottom for the distinctive cobalt-blue crossed-swords logo, derived from Augustus the Strong's coat of arms, and an official hallmark granted in 1724.
A Porcelain Feast -- In addition to viewing Meissen porcelain in the workshop's own museum -- and in the factory store, of course -- you can take in the world's largest single collection in nearby Dresden's Zwinger Palace. It counts 8,000 pieces. There's even a full-size glockenspiel of Meissen porcelain bells in the palace's gate tower.
Bull Market -- Delicate antique Meissen porcelain is considered a solid investment, a fact that gives a whole new meaning to the old saw about a bull in a china shop.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.