Faience first rose to fame thanks to Asian porcelain. Soon after the exotic blue on white porcelain from Asia reached the shore of Europe, it quickly became a sought-after artifact only affordable to the rich. Amid the rising demand, limited supply caused by underdeveloped trade route as well as the high price point of Asian porcelain caused Europe to search within itself for an substitute.
Faience originates from maiolica, which was introduced by Moorish potters of Majorca island and made famous by Renaissance Italians in Faenza. The production in Faenza was so successful that, outside of Italy, maiolica is referred to as porcelain from Faenza, or faience.
The most distinctive feature of faience is an opaque white background created by tin glaze. After given shape, the earthenware is fired for the first time to dry, then dipped into the glaze. Once dried, the glaze forms a powdery white coat on which maker draws patterns using metallic oxides. The piece will then be fired again at a minimum 1000C to fuse the glaze with the patterns. The fundamental difference between faience and other types of porcelain, including the Asian porcelain it was meant to imitate, is the tin oxide used in the glaze, which requires different firing techniques and results in a subtle difference in the white background.
Among the apprentices of Faenza’s renowned craft is a descendant of a ceramic-making family from Moustiers Ste Marie, a tiny picturesque village nesting under the star of the Knights in the cliff west of the Georges du Verdon. In the second half of the 17th century, the faience apprentice Clerissy returned to his hometown and founded the first atelier in the region. In the next two centuries, faience from Moustiers became the favorite pottery of the rich and distinguished in France.
In the first 50 years, Clerissy workshop only made the trendy monochromatic blue patterns on white glaze. The aesthetic styles adopted by Clerissy workshop fit the taste of the wealthy and noble in France. Their decorations included several themes: religion, mythology, coat of arms, and floral decorations. Faience made in Clerissy workshop are not signed but can be distinguished by their style.
Not until their most prominent local rivals found success with multi-colored decoration did Clerissy extend beyond the blue-and-white. Multi-colored or blue-and-white, faience de Moustiers are known for the small human figures drawn on them.
There is also faïence blanc where patterns are formed with incision onto the white glaze, giving the piece a subtle, understated grace.
Competition from cheaper imported porcelain and the rising cost of tin at the turn of 20th century concluded the fate of faience. As the last traditional workshop in Moustiers closed its door, the long tradition and short-lived fame of faience de Moustiers is now preserved by the Museum of Faience in the center of the touristy town. As the well curated exhibition and well told stories take visitors through the rise, fall and rebirth of faience from the region, one sad truth remains. On an international scale, faience de Moustiers does not enjoy the same reverence of Dutch deftwares and Italian maiolica. In France, Moustiers ranks behind Quimper, Ruoen and Marseille. Sadly, history seems to only remember the first or the best. Once favored by the royal family, faience de Moustiers is missing from major antique dealers’ catalogues today.
On an opening night to celebrate the beginning of spring, the owner of La Chaine, a shop next to the museum, passionately told us about the valuable antiques he found when digging abandoned sites around town and how he used them as an inspiration for new designs. In his shop, pristine white porcelain with minimalist blue patterns and tableware covered in bold floral patterns stand side by side with antique faience. He is not the only artist in town working hard to revive and revamp this craft. All that is left of a glorious time is scattered workshops desperate to sell to tourists a tradition whose identity is as vague as its future.
*It is important to distinguish between the thousand-year-old Egyptian faience (self-glazing, containing quartz and not made from clay) and the more recent maiolica-inspired faience from Europe.