What Is Porcelain, and Why Has It Been Cherished For Centuries?

By: Carrie Whitney, Ph.D.  | 
A rare cup of Chinese porcelain with images of chickens on it.
The Meiyintang Chenghua "Chicken Cup" fetched $36 million at a 2014 Sotheby's auction in Hong Kong, a world auction record price for Chinese porcelain. DALE de la REY/AFP via Getty Images

It would make an ideal bowl for chicken soup, in particular because it is painted with roosters, hens and chicks. But with a price tag of $36.05 million, a world auction record for Chinese porcelain in 2014, the Meiyintang 'Chicken Cup' is not a cup you'd ever eat out of. To explain that price tag, it's essential to question what it's made of, and specifically, what is porcelain?

After all, that 'Chicken Cup' was crafted during the Chenghua reign (1465-87) when porcelain "quality was at its peak and quantities produced at their lowest," according to Sotheby's, the auction house that sold the bowl. At that time, Europeans had discovered porcelain, but they had not yet learned how to make it.


The prized material has been described as delicate, elegant and translucent, but it also boasts high durability and is nearly impermeable. But what is porcelain, exactly, and what sets it apart from other ceramics? In this article, we'll explore the historical and modern uses of this beautiful ceramic.

What Is Porcelain?

Porcelain is a type of ceramic material that is highly durable and has high-performance characteristics due to its production process, according to Giovanni Savorani, president of Confindustria Ceramica, the Italian Association of Ceramics.

The lauded ceramic is made from a combination of natural materials including clay, sand and feldspar, he explains in an email. The exact formula of raw materials varies by manufacturer and type of application. The most common element for tableware is the type of clay known as kaolin, which is nearly white in color and features a fine particle size, but kaolin can also be found in tile and sanitary-ware.


Porcelain is a subset of ceramics, and both are made of clay, and both are kiln-fired. However, the porcelain clay from which porcelain is made has a higher density and is fired longer at higher temperatures than other ceramics. The use of finer raw materials and the extremely high temperatures required during the firing process — up to 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit (1,260 degrees Celsius) — determine the porosity of the surface and give porcelain its durability and special water-resistant properties, Savorani explains.

Soft Paste and Hard Paste Porcelain

Hard paste and soft paste porcelains are distinguished by their unique compositions and firing techniques. Hard paste porcelain, a blend of kaolin and petuntse, is known for its resilience and translucent quality due to firing at temperatures between 1400°C to 1450°C, which ensures thorough vitrification. It's characterized by its strength, whiteness, and a notable resonance when struck.

In contrast, soft paste porcelain, a European innovation aimed at emulating Chinese porcelain, mixes kaolin with a glass-like material called frit. This European porcelain is fired at comparatively lower temperatures, around 1100°C to 1200°C, leading to a less vitrified, softer texture. As a result, soft paste porcelain tends to be less translucent, more prone to chipping, and has a slightly grainier surface than its hard paste counterpart.


How Much Porcelain is in Your Porcelain Dishes?

In the tableware industry, china and porcelain are names used interchangeably for the same product. The term "china" was used to denote the place the porcelain was made. You may have also heard people refer to "bone china," which is china that was made in England with one additional ingredient — actual bone. The English used the ground bone ash from farm animals to strengthen their ceramics and to give them a milky white color, according to porcelain company Noritake. Bone china is fired at lower temperatures, so it's easier to make but not as strong.

Porcelain dishes displaying a Red Damask pattern.
These dinner, salad and side plates are from the "Red Damask" pattern of china from Wedgwood, one of the finest makers of bone china in England.


The Long History of Porcelain

Porcelain originated in China around 2,000 years ago during the Tang dynasty (618 to 907), but only in its most primitive form. It wasn't until the Yuan dynasty (1279 to 1368) that the porcelain known in the West was developed, and that is what Marco Polo found when he arrived. The explorer introduced porcelain to Europe in the 14th century, when he took a small gray-green jar among his treasures, according to The New Yorker. He called it porcellana, which is the Italian nickname for the cowry shell.

After the 16th century, when trade routes had been established, a European market for porcelain made in China began. For centuries, manufacturing the prized material still wasn't possible for Europeans. They couldn't crack the recipe and guessed that it contained everything from eggshells to underground juices or that it was made through exposure to the elements for 30 or 40 years.


Finally, in the 18th century, Johann Friedrich Böttger, an alchemist, worked out the formula and founded the Meissen factory in Germany, according to Christie's. In the 1770s, kaolin was found in Cornwall, England, so the British began crafting porcelain too. Since Böttger's time, porcelain-making has undergone changes in the West.

"Constant technological innovation in the ceramic industry — that has largely been led by Italy — led to the birth of modern porcelain tile and a new family of products in the early 1990s," Savorani says. However, the process has not changed much in terms of the materials used or the way porcelain is made.

Pale green porcelain water dropper on a white background.
This Qingbai water dropper with dragon-headed spout is from the first half of 14th century Yuan dynasty.
Museum of East Asian Art/Heritage Images/Getty Images


Porcelain Products Today

Used by the Tang dynasty for teacups, plates and statues, porcelain has moved far beyond just those decorative applications. Today, durable ceramic tiles line floors, walls and building exteriors. It can be used for jewelry, as well as laboratory equipment. Even bathwares like washbasins, tubs and toilets benefit from porcelain enamel.

"There is a rich history of ceramics across multiple industries," Timothy Schroeder, president and CEO of Duravit USA, says in an email. "It is a natural material that is sustainable in production and lifecycle. It is very durable and offers solutions of hygiene for today's lifestyle."


"The biggest change lies in technology and sustainability," Savorani explains. "With new and improved equipment, porcelain ceramic tile is now available in sizes as large as 5.25 by 10.5 feet [1.6 to 3.2 meter] and thicknesses ranging from 3 to 30 mm [0.11 to 1.1 inches] And companies are continuing to improve the efficiency of their factories, reusing 100 percent of wastewater and a large portion of waste material."

The Benefits of Porcelain

Some of the products crafted from porcelain could be made from other materials, but sanitary ceramic — a type of porcelain-glazed ceramic — offers the best solution for a sustainable, modern lifestyle with health and well-being underscoring the applied material science and production developments, Schroeder says.

There are numerous benefits to choosing porcelain:


  • made from natural raw materials
  • easy to clean
  • resistant to mold and bacterial growth
  • durable and water-resistant
  • good for high-traffic or moisture-prone areas
  • doesn't emit harmful substances, such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs)
  • it's recyclable and can be reused

"These are very important qualities, especially now as so many people are looking for peace of mind with materials that can help prevent the spread of bacteria within the home," Savorani says.

Porcelain tiles in a modern shower.
Ariana Anima porcelain tile looks like a mix between natural stone and concrete.
Ceramics of Italy


Cutting and Shaping Porcelain Tile

The process of cutting porcelain depends on the thickness of the tile, explains Savorani. It's possible to cut thin porcelain with a blade, but thicker porcelain, 0.4 inches (10 millimeters) and more, requires the use of waterjet cutting. A wet saw, which uses water to keep the blade cool, is the industry standard for tile cutting. You can use a score-and-snap method, but cutting porcelain can be challenging, and chipped edges or scorching may result.

There are two ways to form porcelain tiles, according to Savorani. For tiles up to 4 by 4 feet (1.2 by 1.2 meters) in size, the shape is formed by special molds. Beyond that size, the process is more of a "compactor" – that is, a system that continuously presses a layer of ceramic powder, which allows for the creation of larger shapes. Porcelain products with a variety of shapes can be made through soft plastic forming, which is a manual shaping method, or with molds.


The Enduring Value of True Porcelain

Now you won't pay anywhere near the $36 million the Meiyintang "Chicken Cup" sold for if you're looking to purchase porcelain, but you can expect to pay more for this fine material. For example, porcelain tile can costs as much as 60 percent more than ceramic tile, according to Home Advisor. And being a hard surface, porcelain tile typically requires professional handling and installation.

But when you take into account the aesthetics and technical benefits of porcelain compared to other materials — it's low maintenance, eco-friendly and long-lasting — it offers a great value, Savorani explains.


This article was updated in conjunction with AI technology, then fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.