With a touch of magic: Lessons learned from alchemists and historic ceramics

Featured in the American Ceramic Society Bulletin June/July Issue - June 2022

In April 2020, amid the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, I spent my time reading through the literature and researching production methods of 18th century overglaze enamels from the Meissen porcelain manufactory, which was located near Dresden in present-day Germany. Founded by Augustus II the Strong, Elector of Saxony, the Meissen manufactory housed renowned alchemists like Johann Friedrich Böttger and Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus, who helped develop the first European hard paste porcelain. Prior to their breakthrough, porcelain was procured solely from the Far East, primarily China, where its production secret was closely guarded for centuries, including the high firing temperature requirements from specialized kilns. However, through clever control of materials chemistry and a high inclusion of lime, these alchemists produced the desired vitreous consistency of porcelain at a much lower temperature than required in the original formula.

Reading through the recipes and stories of Meissen, I could not help but become captivated and inspired by the resiliency of these ceramists; despite their high-pressure work environments, they still flourished in their production of “white gold” and other admired ceramic objects. As the months passed by, my research slowly transitioned back to the laboratory, where the pressure to make up for lost time was very real (though admittedly it originated mostly from my own ambitions). With limited access to instruments and facilities, my research pace was infuriating at times. But I remained hopeful as I kept reading about the intricate discoveries from alchemists at Meissen, born under self-pressure and immense creativity.

I was particularly mesmerized by the complex nanotechnology that appeared to be featured in their purple overglaze enamels, predominantly two called Böttger luster and Purple of Cassius [1]. How did alchemists from 1710–1735 know to work with gold nanoparticles to produce purple glazes? How did they synthesize nanoparticles with their limited technology and understanding of materials science? Were they truly magical beings, or just obsessive experimentalists? Based on the numerous technological advancements that have taken place since the 18th century, it is unlikely the original alchemists from Meissen had any understanding of the fundamental chemistry and physics dominating the optical properties of their glazes. Yet they successfully carried out experiments and produced artworks through repeated trial and error, imagination, and an abundance of pressure from the impatient Augustus II the Strong, who was funding their research. So, I eventually concluded: if they could develop an impressive palette of enamels and porcelains under their work conditions, I could carry out my doctorate during the pandemic.

Hope and resilience. Despite their unfortunate circumstances and timing, alchemists from Meissen made an impact in the history of the world, fabricating lustrous glazes that are still talked about today. Studying their historic purple glazes, I felt like I was tackling a mystery that had puzzled conservators and scientists for centuries—what makes Böttger luster purple and iridescent? I felt incredibly lucky that I could work on this project using modern microscopy and materials characterization tools, more technologically advanced than ever before. Yet as I get further into my research, it is sobering to realize that some research questions cannot be answered even with our advanced techniques. That does not mean, however, they cannot be answered in the future when the right analytical equipment and literature is available to aid in investigation. I am filled with hope thinking about the continuity of research from that perspective, and it inspires me to think about how far mankind’s knowledge will grow with the right facilities and continued curiosity for discovering why materials behave the way they do. As modern-day ceramists, please remember the spirit of our alchemist past when studying the advanced materials of the future. With patience, resilience, and hope, what seems magical today will likely be explainable in the future

[1] Chari CS, Taylor ZW, Bezur A, Xie S, and Faber KT, “Nanoscale engineering of gold particles in 18th century Böttger lusters and glazes,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 119(18), 2022: e2120753119

A Year Like No Other

Featured in Totem LXIV (2021) - May 2021

When we were first advised to isolate at home in March 2020, I was naively looking forward to having more time to read through papers, start at-home workouts and cook new recipes. However, that quickly changed when I realized we would be in it for the long haul. Like many other graduate students, I was frustrated with the lack of progress of my lab-based work and felt like my research was being set back by months. I struggled to find the motivation I needed to complete simple tasks, but with time I realized that I had to make the best out of a bad situation. I tried to separate my working week from my weekends, and mindfully chose activities that brought me joy. To take my mind off all the chaos, I started drawing and painting more frequently, sending my artwork to my family back home in Ireland and Spain. I wanted them to know that I missed them profoundly, but that I was also staying safe at home. Being an international student during this troublesome year added another tier of worry and heartbreak that is difficult to describe. Yet, seeing my parents display my art on their walls, like they once did with my macaroni art as a child, made me feel lucky to have their warmth and support despite the distance between us. This deeply encouraged me to continue working on my art. I also took this time to go on socially distant hikes and isolated getaways within Los Angeles County, where I came across colorful materials in nature that inspired me to make my own paints. I am a materials scientist with a passion for cultural heritage and art conservation science, so I was excited to start my own little laboratory of art materials at home. I did this by using hand-picked mineral and organic pigments that I could process into watercolors and inks following the instruction of Prof. Sandy Rodriguez. Her class on Visual Narratives and Colors of the Americas was a highlight of my year, providing both the historical and technical context that helped me learn how to process natural pigments.

The painting that I submitted to Art of Science is a map that summarizes all the places that I visited in the last year, made entirely from watercolor paints that I made by hand. The colors were chosen carefully to represent some key features. For example, the highways were painted with hematite (Fe2O3) to represent my travels as veins, which kept me revitalized and energized during this last year. The yellows of the land were made from turmeric and goethite (FeO(OH)), while the ocean was made from malachite (Cu2CO3(OH)2) and Maya blue. The greens were made from antlerite (Cu3(OH)4) and a combination of my blues and yellow, representing the flora of SoCal. The black details were all made from magnetite (Fe3O4) that was collected by dragging a massive magnet on the ground during hikes (think pet rock on a leash). The pink (used for my clothes) was made from cochineal insects, while the purple was made from logwood ink. The personal narratives illustrated in the map reflect my adventures in Los Padres National Forest (where I saw a tiny frog and a rock shaped like a butt), Lebec (where I stayed at a llama farm), Calabasas (where I went to a drive-thru carved pumpkin exhibit), Mojave Desert (where I tried to stay in my bubble of isolation, despite bumping into people without masks), Acton (home of my malachite and magnetite), Caltech (represented by a turtle), Jurupa Mountains (home of my hematite and goethite), and Idyllwild (did you know their Mayor is a dog called Max??). ‘A Year Like No Other’ serves as a personal reminder that not all of this year was wasted. I was still able to make new memories and learn about materials and processing methods in a unique way, despite all the roadblocks.