300 YEARS OF MEISSEN

Teapot with Snowball Blossoms"What comes to your mind when you think of Meissen porcelain?" asked Christian Kurtzke, the young, charismatic CEO of the Meissen porcelain manufactory near Dresden. Addressing a group of journalists on the eve of the company's 300th anniversary celebrations, he swiftly answered his own question: prim cups and plates covered in a flowery blue pattern (ie, the Blue Onion design, also known as Zwiebelmuster or "Saxon design", which the company invented in 1739). When I asked my son, his reply was more direct: "Porcelain? For grandmothers." The formula for the first European hard porcelain was founded in January 1708 by a team of chemists and mining experts headed by Johann Friedrich Böttger working for the King of Poland, who was also the Electoral Prince of Saxony. They were commanded to recreate what the Chinese had originated centuries before. The Meissen Porcelain Manufactory opened its doors on January 23rd 1710, and has since survived several wars, various owners, communism and financial crises. (The latest hasn't had too dramatic effect on Meissen's bottom line, Kurtzke insists, even though the export market to Russia collapsed by two thirds.) Three centuries on, the state-owned Meissen factory employs 800 skilled workers-potters, designers, painters-and continues to mine its own kaolin, quartz and feldspar. The formulas for its porcelain and paints remain top secret. Meissen table services are sold in limited editions, and its figurines are still popular gifts (the pug is the big hit among British customers; Italians prefer the harlequins). For me, "Meissen" evokes something less tangible. Growing up in East Germany, the name always described something unspeakably rare and valuable, elusive under communism. My parents own one small vase made of real Meissen porcelain, which they inherited from my grandmother, a Dresdner. This precious piece always commanded great admiration and respect in our household. We were not allowed to touch it. When Kurtzke assumed his role as head of Meissen in September 2008, he knew he needed to update its slightly dusty image. A Berliner educated in America and a former strategy manager at Boston Consulting Group, he has overseen the launch of several new product lines, which are clearly meant to appeal to more contemporary luxury tastes (ie, the new Fine Dining series includes "eight exclusive Meissen arrangements for sushi, pasta, or espresso"). The company is also inviting large-scale architectural commissions for porcelain wall tiles (painted and unpainted). One of the first clients is Berlin's five-star Adlon Hotel, which intends to cover the walls of one of its suites in modern Meissen tiles. Espresso dell ArteThe company is also moving into the jewellery market, though these pieces are only available in a few shops in Germany, Milan and St Moritz. The hand-made pieces, made of porcelain, gold or silver and precious stones, sell for between several hundred and several thousand euro. Jacqueline Schröder, the regional manager at the flagship store on Berlin's Unter den Linden Avenue, showed me the exclusive cuff-links of red gold with the Meissen trademark of two crossed swords. President Obama received a pair from the prime minister of Saxony when he visited Dresden last year. Surprisingly, I was able to find something beautiful, simple and suitable for my budget: a fine white espresso set for two. Now I am also the proud owner of Meissen porcelain, which I not only get to look at but also use. Meissen has planned an array of events to celebrate its 300th anniversary ~ CORNELIA RUDAT