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Tradition is key to success for Europe's oldest porcelain maker

At 100,000 euros for a clock, buyers may wonder just what's behind porcelain from Meissen. The Meissen factory focuses on artisanship and tradition and hopes that this emphasis will help it beat economic woes.

A hand holding a paintbrush paints the two swords that form Meissen's logo

Two crossed swords painted in blue form Meissen's emblem

To mark its 300th anniversary this year, porcelain manufacturer Meissen announced it would sell 10 special edition clocks at prices of 100,000 euros ($129,000) each. That might stun the average buyer, but the clocks sold out immediately - with an additional 30 orders placed that could not be filled.

"Issuing 10 clocks wasn't just a marketing trick or an arbitrary limited edition," explained Meissen's CEO Christian Kurtzke. "It reflects the number of clocks we'll actually be able to finish in a year."

That's because Meissen still relies on its traditional production methods as Europe's oldest porcelain maker. The porcelain is crafted from scratch and painted entirely in-house by specialists who have trained for years at the factory in eastern Germany.

The company's emphasis on tradition may have helped save it from bankruptcy, despite the problems that have plagued the luxury industry following the global financial crisis. Other porcelain producers like Wedgwood in England and subsidiary Rosenthal in Germany have declared bankruptcy in the last few years.

This detail shot shows the base of Meissen's anniversary clock with scenes reminiscent of Asian art

The Chronos 300, Meissen's anniversary clock, includes a series of motifs inspired by Asian art

30 years experience required

For CEO Kurtzke, the clocks are works of art. Just five employees are authorized to craft the Chronos 300, and each employee has at least 30 to 40 years of experience designing porcelain.

They are part of a production process that has resisted globalization. No step in the porcelain manufacture has been outsourced, and the artists employed at Meissen are typically drawn from the region. After an apprenticeship that lasts more than three years, an artist may be hired, typically specializing in a single motif, like flowers, birds or oriental patterns.

"The porcelain makers here are proud, not only because we work for the oldest porcelain manufacturer in Europe, but it's also an honor to have enough skill for the job," said one artist who paints porcelain at Meissen.

Alchemy and 'white gold'

Around 10,000 colors are available for the artists to use in painting. Each color is produced locally at laboratories in Meissen - just like the porcelain itself.

A woman solders the porcelain parts of a flower-like tea pot together at Meissen's factory

Meissen artists combine numerous porcelain pieces to form intricate designs

That's a tradition that dates back 300 years to Polish King Augustus the Strong. Fascinated by the porcelain imported from Asia, he pressed an alchemist to discover the secret behind "white gold." Within 10 years, they had succeeded, and the Meissen factory was born in 1710.

"This story of discovery and the characters involved make the background to the factory very interesting and the products themselves very innovative and unusual," said Rodney Woolley, a porcelain expert at Christie's auction house in London. "It also makes Meissen one of the best known brands in the world."

The company's history and brand name recognition have contributed to some hefty auction prices in recent years, including the sale of two 16-inch Meissen candelabras for 337,000 euros and two bird figurines for 169,000 euros last December in an auction hosted by Christie's in Paris.

Weathering the storm

Despite having weathered the economic crisis well with stable sales in 2009 and 30 percent sales growth so far in 2010, Meissen has faced financial problems in recent years. In July, the company announced job cuts amounting to nearly a fourth of the current staff, and changes are being planned in the product lines and how they are marketed.

Nevertheless, Kurtzke is preserving the traditions at the core of the company. The job cuts will be made among the administrative staff rather than among the artists, and the porcelain will continue to be crafted individually at Meissen's factory.

A long wall frieze made out of porcelain is shown on a palace wall in Dresden against a blue sky

Meissen's "Fuerstenzug" in Dresden depicts nobility and other figures from Saxony's history

Though popularly associated with dishware or small sculptures, the company hopes to expand its appeal for upscale interior design pieces. "We view our primary field as the entire home and the entire home interior, from floor to ceiling - and especially in the architectural arena, we see a lot of potential for growth," Kurtzke said.

Architectural products may include porcelain tile to be used in bathroom floors or walls. As a waterproof material, porcelain can even be used for wall mountings that must face the elements, like the famous Fuerstenzug frieze on the outer wall of a Dresden palace made from Meissen's porcelain.

But not everyone is convinced by the company's innovations. One guest at the factory's year-long retrospective exhibition had a clear preference for the older pieces on display. "The newer pieces aren't as pretty - and there are a few out there that I wouldn't buy even if I were a millionaire!" she said.

Author: Greg Wiser
Editor: Kate Bowen

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