During his famous voyage to China, Marco Polo was the first western individual to come across the ceramic substance called "PORCELAIN".
Until the end of the 17th century the only means to obtain this material was to import it from China. Kaolin (in Chinese meaning white clay) is the primary substance for making porcelain. Apparently Kaolin was non existent in the underground of Europe. Moreover, the Chinese were bitterly safeguarding the secrets of its processing method.
During the early 18th century, Kaolin was found for the first time at Saxe. In 1713 its firing process, which was different from other ceramic products, was identified as well. For many years a patron of arts by the name of Marquise de Pompadour had attempted to manufacture porcelain in France, but because Kaolin was not yet found in Europe, she decided to import it from China. This was the start of the world famous "MANUFACTURE DE SEVRES" near Paris.
Towards the end of the 18th century Kaolin was finally discovered around Limoges in France. This started the history of Limoges porcelain. A small town, Limoges was one of the oldest in the French kingdom. In the beginning one manufacturing facility was set up, rapidly followed by several more, prominently to meet the demands of European courts. The most prestigious artists of those days, painters in particular, became interested in this fabulous substance. As a result essential objects for daily use as well as decorative articles became available. Since then masterpieces have been created and passed along generations worldwide. Some such articles can be viewed at the " Musee de la Porcelaine de Limoges " the most important in the world for its specificity.
Creativity was enhanced to make tableware articles such as plates, platters and pitchers as well as fancy objects like bonbonieres, vases, etc. Among these the snuff box, Tabatière in French, became an immediate success. A century earlier a diplomat called Nicot introduced tobacco in France. During that time one did not smoke tobacco; it was snuffed instead. The snuff was wrapped in small linen bags and placed in leather pouches or silver, gold, wooden and ivory boxes. All of these materials were difficult to decorate or very expensive. Porcelain rapidly gained its place among these materials and soon thousands of different shapes of Tabatières were made of porcelain. The parts of the box were assembled with a setting made of brass. Gold or silver latches were used to complement the setting.
With the other available materials it was not possible to create various shapes of boxes whereas with porcelain this inconvenience was eliminated and there was no longer a limit to the artists' imagination and creativity. One would create miniaturized boxes resembling flowers, musical instruments, pets even shoes and coiffure. In some instances the wealthy and noble would order a one of a kind miniaturized model personifying their beloved one. Owning a Tabatière identified a person as distinguished, trendy and affluent.
Indeed the French revolution led to a different use of tobacco. The soldiers of the Republic found it easier to smoke the tobacco with a pipe instead of snuffing it. Soon this practice was spread among ordinary people, diminishing the popularity of the fashionable snuff boxes and bringing their production to a standstill.
The reminiscence of the past prompted some of the Limoges producers to pursue the re-birth of the Tabatière. It began with the interest expressed by some antique dealers who were solicited by frustrated collectors, unable to locate the old snuff boxes. To understand the reason for this scarcity it is worth mentioning that two centuries is a lengthy time for a material as fragile as porcelain to endure. Moreover during this era Europe came to know revolutions and wars, which brought substantial destruction. During 1789-1792 the revolutionary soldiers steadily destroyed whatever they found in the home of the aristocrats and religious people. Furthermore due to accidental fires and lack of fire prevention equipment, several parts of the town of Limoges had burned down to ashes. Because of this the original Tabatières that survived such disasters carry a very high value. One such box was auctioned off for one million French Francs.
Some manufacturers worked very hard to revive the production of the Tabatières by consulting historians and conducting research in museums and libraries. They contemplated that no matter how, the old moulds should be found. If no longer in existence the moulds had to be reconstituted from old documents. Fortunately these efforts have paid off and great results achieved.
Once the production of the Tabatières restarted, the collectors were not disappointed with the entirely hand made reproductions that attained the status and quality of their predecessors. Numerous artisans and highly skilled workers draw, sculpture, shape, fire, decorate and set these fine objects to bring satisfaction and pleasure to the admirers of fine arts. These artisans bestow upon their work the pride of a job well done. They use traditional methods passed on for generations and are proud to have succeeded in resurrecting their heritage.
It is noteworthy that the name of this town combined with its derivative, grant it an international reputation - Porcelaine de Limoges.
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