You probably have seen the glazed blue and white porcelain pots and tiles in more than one country – from China to Denmark, from Russia to Turkey. The popular art of painted porcelain dates back to the 14th century, and although some argue that the craft takes its origin in Turkey, it seems the Chinese discovered it first. While they fiercely guarded their secret, the Turks eventually learned the method, and from there, it found its way to Europe.
Whether the Russians guessed the Chinese method or slowly perfected their own, the Russian folk pottery was thriving in Russia centuries ago. Famous for its rare white clay, Gzhel, an area about 50 kilometers southeast of Moscow, had been a potter’s heaven since the 14th century. A medieval Russian document chronicles that a man who discovered the clay exclaimed, "Nowhere did I see a clay whiter than this!" The very name of Gzhel derives in all likelihood from the Russian verb zhech, which means “burn” or “make fire.”
Gzhel pottery was originally created by potters in their homes, but soon they began to gather into workshops and later into factories. Eventually, the craftsmen developed their niches – some made the pottery, while others painted it. In the 17th century, tsar Aleksey Mikhailovich learned about Gzhel’s clay, and an industry was officially born.
Nowadays, a Gzhel specialist creates a plaster model first. Using a potter's wheel with special attachments and a shaping device with a steel blade to scrape off excess plaster, he creates a working mold. Another specialist fills the mold with porcelain paste. The porous plaster of the working mold absorbs moisture from the paste and lets the porcelain harden slowly. After that, the piece is ready for its first "firing" or "burning." Once the initial burning is done, a painter takes his brush to it. The traditional Gzhel style revolves around floral and geometric patterns applied with quick brushstrokes. It is traditionally blue on white. A somewhat different style – a combination of blue, green, yellow, and brown – is called majolica.
The Gzhel’s tradition is passed from one generation to the next, and there seems to be no end to artists’ creativity. Gzhel produces samovars, vases, clocks, lamps, candleholders, and figurines as well as dinner and tea sets. As centuries before, all the pieces are hand made and hand painted, and every item is a piece of art on its own.