When my Grandma talked about people she deemed ‘important’, in her tightly-knit German community of Southern Brazil, she would refer to them as “people who eat off Meissen plates.” As a child, I thought that the handmade plates from Germany were a privilege of very special people.
Grandma passed away many years ago (at 96!) and I forgot about her Meissen thing. Until one day, visiting Dresden, many decades later, I saw an ad for a tour of the Meissen porcelain factory and decided to join it. “Grandma would have been happy”, I thought.
A fast train to Meissen took only 20 minutes. The pretty medieval village on both sides of the Elbe River looked like a perfectly-preserved Saxony town, with imposing castles and Gothic churches. All the houses had flowers on the windows, just like we see in postcards of Germany.
I took a local bus to the Meissen porcelain factory and joined a group at the workshop. We saw how the porcelain is hand-painted and glazed, and learned that in Meissen the production is still an artisanal process where highly skilled craftsmen and women follow their creativity, rather than pre-established designs. Each piece is uniquely crafted, hence the high price.
Watching a painter applying colors to a white plate – that in her hands soon became a work of art – I noticed that around me there were mostly Chinese tourists, all silently watching her work. I later learned that it was actually the Chinese who first made fine porcelain, and that back in 1708, Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony and king of Poland, sent spies to China to copy the process. Meissen soon became the first manufacturer of hard-paste porcelain in Europe. Until then, fine china had to be imported by Europe, at very high costs.
The museum above the factory displayed 300 years worth of the finest porcelain, among them replicas of sets used by kings and emperors of Europe and Russia. I was dazzled by the craftsmanship, and decided that I needed a Meissen plate in my life.
On the way out, I stopped at an antique shop full of vintage one-of-a-kind plates. I picked one with flowers, a butterfly and a bird, had it carefully wrapped, and left the shop brimming with contentment for finally owning a Meissen plate.
Weeks later, hanging the plate in my kitchen in New York, I couldn’t help smile imagining “If Grandma could see me now.”