Walk anywhere in Limoges and you can’t fail to be aware of the town’s reputation for making some of the best porcelain in the world. Shop windows galore are filled to the brim with teapots, vases, cups and sauces and the accoutrements of tableware…
Porcelain in Limoges
I popped into the premises of Bernadaud, one of the great porcelain makers since 1863. It’s the perfect place for an overview of just what it is that makes the pottery produced here in the capital of Limousin in the centre of France so very special. There are dozens of producers and shops in the town of Limoges where they’ve been making it since the late 18th Century, so you’ll have a great choice.
Bernadaud in Limoges is not just a shop. There is also a museum which has a permanent collection and temporary exhibitions, a workshop, seconds factory, little terraced café and a boutique. The sheer diversity of what can be done by this renowned porcelain company may leave you goggle eyed. If you think it’s all about cups and saucers, bowls and plates, think again.
I saw the most incredible lamps made from porcelain in the museum; there is jewellery, ornaments and pots of all shapes and sizes. Best of all, at Bernadaud you’re able to follow the process from the mixing of the raw ingredients to the application of real gold, silver and platinum.
“In Limoges, everyone checks the backs of their plates. In restaurants at the houses of friends… they want to see who made it, to make sure it is Limoges and real” says my guide. Authentic porcelain is translucent and has a special delicate feel, hold it up to the light and you’ll see the faint glow through the solid fine china. You’ll often come across Bernadaud in restaurants. The sexy, sophisticated and iconic striped dinner service used in Claridges, London was produced by Bernadaud. In the museum the unmistakable style of this oh so chic dinner set is laid out for visitors to enjoy alongside services from many of the major hotels and restaurants of the world.
I ask the guide if I, a mere member of public, can buy a Claridges set to enjoy at home. She splutters and tells me absolutely not. Then she takes pity on me and tells me that I can buy something very similar in the shop.
She tells me that this particular set was conceived by Olivier Gagnère, a famous French designer, and that Bernadaud work with many designers and with individual clients. Not a company to rest on their 150 year old laurels they constantly seek innovation in design. Anyone can have a bespoke service designed and produced – if they have enough money. How much I ask, and she refuses to answer saying every design is so individual it is not possible to give random quotes – though we’re talking in the thousands of Euros, not the hundreds for a bespoke plate with a picture of your dog. Making porcelain in a complex process she assures me and we go into the museum to check it out for ourselves.
There are boxes of the key ingredients: water and kaolin, a form of clay. There are moulds and pottery pieces to touch and examine. It’s pottery until its glazed, then it’s called porcelain. Bernadaud has a big factory in nearby Oradour-sur-Glane where the mixing and moulding is carried out. The pieces are then carefully transferred to Limoges for the final touches. Almost everything is glazed by hand in a liquid of “secret ingredients”. The pieces are fired, glazed, refired, painted, embellished and finally ready for everyday use.
The painting is carried out with special brushes made of fine silk fibres or goats hair; real gold, silver and platinum is applied by hand. Everything requires an immense amount of expertise; the finishes are painstakingly applied and so much harder than you think they could possibly be. If one microscopic lick of paint is deemed out of place by the experts who eyeball every piece – it goes to the seconds shop, and it’s amazing to see how much there was in that space and I couldn’t see a single thing wrong or out of place/
No wonder the town has a special liqueur named after kaolin, the essential material that forms the porcelain.
So important is porcelain considered in France that each French president has a porcelain dinner service presented to him for use during his tenure in office. Bernadaud designed the set used by President Jacques Chirac, but to make it fair and unbiased, the President does not get to choose, each maker gets a turn.
Porcelain fans will love the Adrien Dubouché National Museum of Porcelain with over 10,000 porcelain and earthenware pieces from all over the world.
Next time your dinner is served – don’t forget to lift the plate and check if you can see through it and find the little mark that proves its been made by the best in the world.
For information on what to see and do in Limousin visit: www.tourismelimousin.com
For information on France see uk.rendezvousenfrance.com