MEISSEN, GERMANY — With the precision of a surgeon, the porcelain designer takes a scalpel-like instrument and patiently carves an eyebrow into the tiny figurine she’s holding.
The woman, whose been working at the Staatliche Porzellan-Manufaktur Meissen Company just outside Dresden for 30 years, steadies her arm on a plank of wood and with lazar-sharp focus attaches the head to the massive piece she’s been working on for the past 10 days.
“I will finish this piece in a few more days,” she tells me with a look of accomplishment.
She has forgotten how many pieces she’s completed in her tenure at the world-renowned company that has been making priceless porcelain pieces since 1710 in this historic Saxon city, whose fabled Albrechtsburg Castle and neighbouring Meissen Cathedral, both Gothic masterpieces, sit perched overlooking the Elbe River.
Porcelain’s roots run deep in lovely Meissen, and the castle — Germany’s oldest — is where the city’s porcelain industry actually started.
Above: A Meissen artisan carefully creates a dazzling porcelain figure, the the giant one right.
Built between 1471 and 1524 for two brothers who jointly ruled the Free State of Saxony at the time, the castle was never occupied because the siblings had a falling out and went their separate ways.
In 1708, Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus came up with the formula for Europe’s first hard paste porcelain - finally rivalling what the Chinese had been doing for 2,000 years. However, that same year, before he could get production in full swing, von Tschirnhaus died.
In 1710, Johann Friedrich Böttger picked up where von Tschirnhaus left off and turned the empty castle into a factory, which was used for the next 153 years to produce porcelain. In1863, production shifted to its present site.
Artists and artisans poured into Meissen to work for the company and the gallery-worthy pieces they created became must haves in the royal courts of Europe and aristocratic homes.
Over 2,000 pieces are displayed in the company museum and another 2,000 historic works are stored away in vaults. People from all over the world come to admire the delicate works, some of which stand three-metres tall.
All the pieces bear the company's signature logo — two crossed swords — that is believed to be oldest trademark in existence.
“There was a lot of counterfeiting of our products back in the 18th century, so they decided to add our sword trademark,” says a museum guide.
Above: Ancient cathedral blackened by age and a colourful Old Town are other highlights in Meissen.
Many of the 30,000 people who live in this still prosperous town owe their livelihood to the porcelain company, and the woman I’m watching pauses a few seconds to tell me she’s the sixth generation of her family to work here.
Much of the materials used in the making of porcelain, especially kaolin, are readily available in mines just outside Meissen. The original moulds are just as priceless as the finished pieces and they, too, are safely stored away in the company’s vaults.
Because of the long process and detail that goes into each piece, Meissen porcelain is not cheap — a tea cup and saucer set costs about $400 and the smaller the piece, the more expensive it is.
“The small pieces take so much more time to create,” says the woman.
All pieces are painstakingly made by hand and the guide tells me the company’s famed onion pattern, which dates back 280 years and painted a distinct cobalt blue, is the most popular design with purchasers.
In all, Meissen aetisans work from 200 patterns and the company has developed 10,000 different colour swatches. Pure gold is used in gilded pieces — hence the high cost.
Meissen also has a long history making wine and the terraced vineyards that cling to the fertile hills surrounding this fairytale town date back 850 years.
One aristocratic family headed by Prince zur Lippe is dominant in the production of wine in Meissen and their Schloss Proschwitz vineyard is the oldest in the state of Saxony. The family, which has deep roots here, now also owns the historic castle.
Above: All eyes are on you in Meissen, even from the roof tops of homes in the Old Town area.
However, his wife, Princess zur Lippe, tells me over lunch in the winery’s museum restaurant that her family only returned to Meissen after the Berlin Wall came down — they had fled after World War II when this part of Germany was under communist rule.
“The vineyards were in very bad shape when we returned and we brought them back,” the charming princess tells me.
“We were not well received when we came back because people were suspicious of our intentions. But over time trust was built and the locals accepted us back,” she tells me as I sample some of the vineyard’s finest products.
Because of the fresh continental climate here — lots of sun and cool nights — the family’s boutique 480- hectare winery produces some palatable vintages — the reds are especially tasty; light and fruity with cherry and blackberry tones.
“There are eight different types of soil in this region so we can produce eight different types of wine,” says the princess, who ships most of the vineyard’s production abroad, especially to Japan because “our whites pair very well with Japanese food like sushi.”
The castle returned to the family in the early 1990s when Prince zur Lippe bought it back. After lovingly restoring it, the Prince and Princess use it primarily now for functions relating to the winery.
“The castle is the symbol of our city and it’s also our heart,” the princess tells me.
After lunch, I hike up to the castle and get a stunning panoramic view of the town, the Elbe River and the surrounding countryside from the lofty height.
Above: Regal homes just outside Meissen indicate the wealth accumulated in this area.
The castle is considered the purest Gothic building in all of Europe and the blackened sandstone church standing next to it is equally impressive.
Music pouring out of the church — it lost its cathedral status many years ago — attracts my attention and lures me into a pew. A massive pipe organ dating back centuries is suppling the angelic sounds. Concerts are held every day.
I walk down the slopes on the opposite side of the castle and the path deposits me in the Old Quarter where the average age of the houses is a staggering 380 years. The main square is surrounded by storybook homes and buildings painted pastel colours and on this sunny spring day the cafés are filled with sun worshipers.
On my tour of the narrow streets I come upon what’s left of the old city wall — circa 1470 — and lots of shops selling Meissen porcelain.