The European fascination with porcelain began with a few pieces of Oriental porcelain that filtered through the middle East into Europe in the late 15th century. Porcelain was beautiful, rare and reputed to be able to detect poison in food...a useful attribute in the princely courts of the period. Such pieces were often fitted by their owners with Gold or Silver mounts.
A sea route around the Cape of Good Hope was discovered in 1498 and by the mid 16th century there was an active European trade with China and the flow Porcelain increased. Chinaware would be stowed in the bottom of the hold as it was unaffected by sea water and the even more valuable spices and silk would be stowed above it. "China Mania" really took hold in 1604 with the Dutch seizure of the Santa Catherina, a Portuguese Carrak, with a cargo that included 100,000 pieces of porcelain. This was an unusually large cargo for the time and it was auctioned amid great excitement in Amsterdam. Naturally, European potters turned their attention to discovering the secrets of its manufacture.
The first successful European porcelain was that made in 1576 under the sponsorship of Francesco l de Medici in Florence. This effort ceased in the early years of the next century and only a few pieces survive. This porcelain, like that of Poterat at Rouen a century later, was soft paste and it was not until 1710 at Meissen that a European Hard paste equivalent to the Oriental porcelains was developed.
Meissen was only able to keep their discovery secret for a few years. By 1717 the secret had leaked to du Paquier at Vienna and by 1720 to Vezzi in Venice. Furstenberg, Frankenthal, Höchst, Nymphemberg, Berlin and others followed in the mid 1700's. Still other factories that did not have accesss to the necessary materials or the secret made soft paste porcelains. These included the French factories of Mennency, St Cloud, and Vincennes/Sevres, many Italian factories and the earliest English porcelains
Unlike their counterparts on the European mainland, who usually functioned under the direct sponsorship and with the financing of princes, English porcelain manufacturers were strictly commercial undertakings whose survival depended their ability to serve the needs and aspirations of the nobility and also the growing class of wealthy merchants resulting from the beginnings of the industrial revolution.
The great English factories of this period are Chelsea, Bow, Derby, Worcester together with a number of other short lived ventures such as Longton Hall, Lund's Bristol, Plymouth, Vauxhall and Limehouse. From the late 18th century onwards English ceramics dominated the market with Wedgwood's creamware, Bone China and Staffordshire pottery all of which put extreme economic pressure on the European porcelain factories. With the added burdens of revolution and war few survived into the 19th century.
The 19th century saw the growth of the middle classes and the demand for porcelain led to large scale manufacture although there was still a substantial market for fine , hand decorated luxury porcelain. This was largely eliminated by the 1st World War and the Great Depression. Today with rare exceptions, such as Meissen and Nymphemberg in Germany, the "Flora Danica" of Royal Copenhagen and the Lynton Porcelain Company in England, luxury porcelain with hand decoration of exceptional quality is a thing of the past.