Handle With Care

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 September, 2011, 12:00am


DESIGNERS DRAW inspiration from many sources, and it was only a matter of time before they would pay homage to the decorative beauty of fine porcelain. In haute couture, Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel and Riccardo Tisci at Givenchy turned to the embroiderers of Paris years ago to apply their trompe l'oeil magic, recreating the intricate painted surfaces of Sevres porcelain and the alabaster reliefs of Nymphenburg on fabric for their collections last autumn.

This year, it is the turn of fashion's great printers to translate porcelain's exquisite painted patterns into dresses and accessories. This happily coincides with the porcelain makers starting to produce fine jewellery collections themselves, based on their heritage. Mary Katrantzou and Sarah Burton at Alexander McQueen have both looked at porcelain, but for strikingly different reasons.

At McQueen, the two dresses to close the A/W show had corsets constructed from pieces of cracked blue and white china worn with frothy white skirts. The concept was based on the idea of armour and protection -an ever-present underlying theme in a McQueen show, right through to the 'helmet' of metal hairclips, juxtaposed by the softness of the skirts. Burton wanted to heighten the sense of fragility contrasting the need to protect.

These amazing corsets have provided the basis of this season's more commercial pieces in the McQueen collection, with the cracked ceramic patterns printed across a long, chiffon bustier dress, jersey dresses, T-shirts and knitwear, right through to the printed clutch bags and the gem-studded skull rings.

During Katrantzou's research for her summer collection of house interior prints on silk dresses, she came across images of priceless Chinese and European porcelain. 'It got me thinking about combining the patterns of Meissen and the Qianlong style, and the intricacy of Faberge eggs alongside Ming vases,' she says. 'It was a very maximalist way of looking at patterns through these objects of art.'

The dainty hand-painted florals on a Meissen jar are used to frame a Chinese porcelain scene. These pretty collage prints appeared on silk dresses and translated into very complex jacquard knits and bias-cut gowns that were so tricky to engineer and print that she likens the process 'to nailing jelly onto the wall'.

Katrantzou wasn't just looking at the prints either. She sculpted her silhouettes to echo the roundness of a Faberge egg, or the neck or long slim base of a Ming vase. One beautiful dress based on a Faberge egg was made in bonded velvet, leather and crystal, and covered in pink petal paillettes to look like porcelain roses. 'It was definitely a showpiece and wholesaled at GBP3,500, but we have sold 16 of them!'

Of course, the Chinese mastered the art of making porcelain centuries before the west became aware of it, and it took years after the Dutch East India Company introduced fine porcelain tableware to Europe that companies such as Meissen started producing decorative arts and dinner services for the aristocracy. The King of Saxony particularly enjoyed impressing other European royals with the skills of his Meissen craftsmen. Although known for their figurines and tableware in the early days Meissen, which was founded in 1708 near Dresden, also made porcelain jewellery. This bit of history is being revived with a new jewellery collection, available online, that uses their stunning, translucent hard paste porcelain, which is very durable. The Mystery rings and pendants incorporate the skills of the highly trained artists at Meissen, using their 300-year-old secret paint recipes, and an Italian subsidiary to do the precious metalwork.

Dr Christian Kurtzke, Meissen's chief executive, says they found 31 designs for charms used in bracelets and pendants in a log dating back to 1767. The new designs of pendants, rings, cufflinks and necklaces tap into their DNA, he explains, 'with some of our famous designs like the crossed swords and Ming dragon dating back to 1740'.

Meissen is not the only porcelain specialist to be designing jewellery. The Spanish figurine maker Lladro has introduced Re-Cyclos, a range of white porcelain doves set on branches of gold twisted into torques, rings, hairclips and bridal crowns.

Nymphenburg, meanwhile, traces its jewellery back to the 18th century. Set up in 1747, under the patronage of Maximilian III Joseph of Bavaria, it's famed for its colourless, fret-worked pieces so costly they were known as 'white gold'. Their contemporary pure white porcelain pendants are considerably less. Shaped like a bird's wing, heart, or discs engraved with symbols, and tapping into the minimalist trend, they are modern, but the craftsmanship is identical to eighteenth-century methods.