Just as the secret formula for making porcelain eluded Western ceramics manufacturers for centuries, understanding its many facets can be confounding for today’s novice collectors. Take, for example, KPM porcelain. KPM factory marks yield few clues as to the actual origin or age of a piece because “KPM” was not an actual company name.
The KPM mark was applied to porcelain made over a period of 250+ years by various owners, including European royalty. Collectors now use the term KPM to refer to porcelain produced in Berlin in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Porcelain, the translucent white material made from kaolin (a fine white granite clay) fired at a high temperature, was developed in China nearly 2,000 years ago. Porcelain is also commonly referred to as “china” because its first appearance in the Western world was in the form of wares imported from China.
Chinese porcelain was once so highly regarded in Europe that monarchs competed to acquire the finest pieces. They also attempted to unravel the secrets of its manufacture in hopes of producing elegant wares in their own royal pottery works.
Prussian King Frederick II (Frederick the Great) had a passion for the commodity known as “white gold,” and in 1751 gave permission for Berlin merchant Wilhelm Caspar Wegely to establish a porcelain factory. Most surviving examples of his wares are white figures, which are marked with a “W” and a combination of numerals. Plagued by the economic hardships brought on by war, the factory closed in 1757.
Purchasing Wegely’s tools and raw materials, and enlisting his top modeler and decorator, Berlin entrepreneur Johann Ernst Gotzkowsky resumed porcelain production in Berlin in 1761.
With the Seven Years’ War at an end, Frederick II bought the struggling company in 1763 and named in Königliche Porellan-Manufaktur Berlin (Royal Porcelain Manufactory of Berlin). The king allowed the Royal Berlin factory to use his emblem, a cobalt-blue scepter mark, in combination with KPM, an acronym for Königliche Porellan-Manufaktur.
Until the abdication of Emperor William II in 1918, the company was owned by a succession of seven kings and emperors. It is still in operation today.
Through the years, competitors also used the KPM mark, muddying the waters for collectors.
The original KPM Berlin factory is famous for its dinner services, three of which were introduced in 1767.
Because Frederick II was the owner of the company, he often gave KPM porcelain as diplomatic presents. He personally strived to maintain and promote the porcelain’s quality, and to ensure factory employees worked in a satisfactory environment.
The company flourished under Frederick the Great’s successor, his nephew Frederick William II, who came to power in 1786. The factory utilized the latest technology, installing efficient kilns.
Napoleon’s troops occupied Berlin in 1807-1808. They seized KPM’s cash and auctioned off the factory’s inventory for the benefit of French authorities. During this period KPM ran up huge losses.
The chemist Hermann Seger joined the company in 1878 and began to develop new glazes. Among his inventions were oxblood (sang-de-boeuf), celadon, crystal and running glazes. They were inspired by ancient Chinese ceramics.
Theodor Schmuz-Baudiss was appointed artistic director in 1908 and began to make greater use of the glazes developed by Seger. KPM porcelain of the Jugendstil era such as the Ceres dinner service made in 1912 is generally considered to be a paragon of perfection.
After the demise of the monarchy in 1918, KPM became the Staatliche Porzellan-Manufaktur. However, the KPM and scepter marks were retained.
On the night of November 22, 1943, an Allied air raid destroyed the KPM Tiergarten buildings in Berlin. The factory moved into temporary quarters in Selb.
After World War II, the company became the property of the state of Berlin. In 1957, manufacturing returned to the rebuilt KPM buildings in Berlin-Tiergarten.
In 1988 KPM became a limited company known as KPM Königliche Porzellan-Manufaktur Berlin GmbH. No longer a state-owned enterprise, KPM was placed in the hands of Gewerbesiedlugnsgesellschaft, a subsidiary of state-owned Investitionsbank Berlin.
Berlin banker Jörg Woltmann took over the Königliche Porzellan-Manufaktur Berlin in 2006 and became the sole shareholder. KPM celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2013 and continues to be a leading manufacturer of fine porcelain that is sold worldwide.