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When Queen Margrethe II of Denmark stepped into the large hospitality tent set up on the lawn outside the new Royal Copenhagen headquarters on September 17, 2004, a thrill of excitement ran through the 300 guests attending from all over the world. It was impossible not to think back to that first of May 1775 when, under the patronage of Queen Juliane Marie, the Royal Copenhagen Porcelain Manufactory was opened in an old post office in the center of Copenhagen.
This refined material, known as "white gold," was a source of cultural and political competition between Europe and China over a period of several centuries. The composition of porcelain was one of the best-kept secrets of the East and assured a strong source of income for the wealthy merchants of Northern Europe, who imported it along with tea and spices. Among the courts of Europe, King August (known as "The Strong") was the first, together with the alchemist B"ttger, to succeed in reproducing this precious ceramic in Dresden in 1709. However, he kept the formula a secret for several decades, so porcelain had to be reinvented by every other kingdom through years of experiments, attempts and failures.
Success eluded chemist Frantz Mller in Copenhagen until 1775, following years of difficulties and a hard daily struggle against variable and poor raw materials, lack of experience, unsuccessful firings and disappointing experiments. But Mller and his small, select team of artisans labored with determination and persistence, and eventually achieved the necessary continuity and repeatability of results. In 1779, King Christian VII and the Royal Household took over the manufacturing facility. Since then, the porcelain services and other unique creations have been characterized by the three wavy lines of the trademark symbolizing Denmark's three straits between the Baltic and the North Sea-a trademark that became an exclusive status symbol for generations of royal families and nobility.
These pieces of porcelain were enormously valuable, worth sums that today would run to thousands of dollars. According to legend, a service was produced in 1790 for the wedding of Catherine the Great of Russia consisting of a staggering 1802 pieces. This service was revived 70 years later for the wedding of Edward VII of England.
A Cultural and Artistic TraditionAlthough a thin dividing line separates history and legend, modern-day ceramic manufacturers can easily understand the difficulties experienced by a manufacturing plant that has never stopped modernizing and expanding, and whose aesthetic culture has constantly reflected the essence of contemporary society. These difficulties included extensive damage caused by the English bombardment during the Napoleonic wars, which almost annihilated the porcelain plant, as well as raw material embargoes, commercial crises and corporate changes. But Royal Copenhagen came through everything and is now stronger than ever.
One of the secrets of the company's success is the knowledge that people will always appreciate beauty and the desire to keep alive the original motifs of the initial product lines. The legendary "Blue Fluted," a line that was initially inspired by a stylized cobalt blue Chinese floral motif and subsequently became the hallmark of Royal Copenhagen, remains the best-selling product in Royal Copenhagen's range even today.
However, on the old site, logistical production problems and inadequate space for effectively managing a modern plant were becoming less acceptable by the day. The company's management decided to move the production site to spacious buildings with large windows that opened onto a garden, and where the production departments and lines could be organized with an optimal layout. The goals of the expensive refurbishing operation, which cost an estimated e24 million (~$31 million), were to enhance production efficiency while maintaining the outstanding level of flexibility that characterizes Royal Copenhagen's production process.
A Modern Manufacturing ProcessEach production stage in the new facility is characterized by a comfortable working environment, great attention to safety and a constant search for quality. The level of plant engineering, from body and glaze preparation to shaping, drying and firing, is reportedly the most advanced in the sector. But the key stage in production is the manual work of the individuals who perform the most delicate operations-shaping, finishing, glazing, loading/ unloading, selection and, most significantly, the ware decoration.
With thousands of delicate brushstrokes for each piece, subtle airbrush effects and well-calibrated sponge applications, the decorators and painters turn each object into a unique masterpiece. A visit to the factory becomes a tour among the marvels of this unique workshop, where time is measured in terms of the gestures of art. Along with the evident artistic aspects, there are also the age-old mysteries of porcelain: the secret formulas of Meissen, SŠvres, Copenhagen and Capodimonte; the workability of the bodies by casting and calibrating; the different technologies used after biscuit firing; the final firing with overglaze and underglaze decorations; and the subsequent firings (three and sometimes four firings are required) for special colors or gilt.
Firing is a crucial stage in the birth of this "white gold;" the kilns are responsible for the finished ware's compaction, translucency and effective bonding between glazes, oxides and body. For this reason, in the planning stages for the new production facility, Royal Copenhagen's management carefully considered the equipment that would be used in this part of the plant. In late 2002, the contract was assigned to Riedhammer, a company that was established in 1924 and has significant experience in manufacturing thermal processing machines for refractories, sanitaryware, porcelain, technical ceramics for electronics, anodes, crystalline powders and coloring oxides. More than 7000 Riedhammer kilns have been built worldwide, and many of them are still in operation. Riedhammer supplied all seven kilns now installed at Royal Copenhagen, each with varying characteristics depending on the firing processes required for the different product lines.
Royal Copenhagen's products are of the finest and most difficult type of porcelain, known as hard porcelain. Fired at more than 1430øC in a reducing and controlled atmosphere, the reactions of iron oxides (contained in minute quantities) produce the bluish hues that accentuate the level of whiteness and give the final glaze a velvety appearance. It is very difficult to achieve such perfection and repeat it consistently. Additionally, a high level of uniformity must be maintained for a product that shrinks by 13%, particularly in a kiln that has a lifting door structure (one of the largest in the world, with an 18-cubic-meter chamber) and is one of the fastest in its category.
After several months of operation, the kilns have continuously produced results that have exceeded all expectations.
A Continuing LegacyRoyal Copenhagen's motto is "creating moments," and this is something that the company does exceedingly well. With its new manufacturing plant incorporating the most modern production methods, Royal Copenhagen is poised to continue building its legacy of "white gold" for many years to come.
About the AuthorPier Giorgio Burzacchini, based in Imola, Italy, has an extensive background in the ceramic industry and has served as the general director of several tile manufacturing companies. He is currently a consultant to ceramic equipment manufacturers and tile producers and is also a freelance writer. He can be reached at (39) 0542-657110 or fax (39) 0542-657614.
For more information about Royal Copenhagen, visit http://www.royalcopenhagen.com .
- Riedhammer GmbH, Industrial Kiln Plants, Klingenhofstr. 72, D-Nurnberg 90411, Germany; (49) 0911-52180; fax (49) 0911-521-8231
- Sacmi USA Ltd., 3434 106th Circle, P.O. Box 7858, Des Moines, IA 50322; (515) 276-2052; fax (515) 276-5507.
SIDEBAR: Royal Copenhagen at a GlanceFounded: 1775
Turnover (2003): e55 million (~$69 million)
Export share: 80%
Size of new factory: 15,000 square meters(161,000 square feet)
Investment required: e24 million (~$31 million)
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