The Surprisingly Lurid History of Porcelain

By Sandy Bauers (Knight-Ridder/Tribune)
Printed on Thursday, May 6, 1999 in the Chicago Tribune

Porcelain is pretty, to be sure. Its shiny whiteness has a silken, ethereal quality. All those intricate, colorful designs are so eye-catching. It is delicate. Elegant.

But beyond that, so what? One would suppose the only people on the planet who really care about such things are the mothers of society brides.

It turns out, however, that people have died for porcelain. They have been imprisoned for it. Just a few hundred years ago, a European ruler traded 600 of his soldiers - dragoons - for 151 porcelain vases. That's almost four men per vase, which says something significant about the men, the vases or the ruler.

I go with the latter. People of that day were crazed with porcelain fever, according to an utterly obscure, bizarre and bewitching book, "The Arcanum," abridged and recorded by Time Warner (6 hours, $24). It was written by Janet Gleeson, an art historian, painting specialist for Sotheby's and antiques writer.

She shines a light on what has to be one of the oddest corners of history. Back in the 1600's, royalty and other wealthy Europeans were ga-ga over porcelain from China. They spent fortunes on plates, bowls and other items, in some cases draining their treasuries.

A few bright souls began to realize that if Europe made its own porcelain, the gusher of money flowing to China could be stemmed. There was just one problem: no one knew how to make it. They didn't even have a clue.

At the same time, alchemists were involved in a much more difficult quest - in fact, an impossible one, as it turned out. They were searching for the secret formula, the arcanum, by which they could turn ordinary metals into gold.

In those days anyone suspected of getting close to finding the arcanum was imprisoned, not for misdoings, but so the presiding ruler could have all the moolah. If the ruler was impatient enough, the alchemist might be hanged..

One alchemist decided to divert attention from his failure to come up with the arcanum for gold by trying to discover an arcanum for porcelain.

It wasn't such a bad idea. Considering the prices of the day, making porcelain was almost as good as making gold.

He and his workers toiled away at their kilns in the local dungeon for years before hitting on the right combination of clay and other materials. Outside, spies from other European nations hung around the marketplace, hoping for a snippet of information they could sell to woebegone chemists from other countries. It is a compelling story of greed, diabolical intrigue, and what we would now call just plain craziness.

David McCallum reads the audio version, and he was a perfect choice. Though he was born in Scotland, the spy in "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." has an accent that sounds ubiquitously European. His voice is like the Euro-dollar of the audio world - he could be from anywhere. All the Germanic names of this book roll effortlessly from his tongue. His tone adds a sense of mystery and otherworldliness.

Anyone with an appreciation for porcelain - or, for that matter, anyone who could care less about the stuff but who simply like a good tale - will find this production spellbinding.