Sèvres - National Factory and Museum brings together the Sèvres porcelain factory in operation since the 18th century and the National Ceramics Museum created in the following century, located in Sèvres in the Hauts-de-Seine.

A variety of guest artists produce porcelain works and art objects at the factory. The museum preserves ceramics from all over the world and from all periods (pottery, earthenware, stoneware, porcelain from Sèvres and elsewhere).

In 1740, the Vincennes factory was founded, thanks to the support of Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour, in order to compete with the productions of Chantilly and Meissen.

In 1756, the factory was moved in Sèvres in a building built on the initiative of Madame de Pompadour, near her castle of Bellevue. 130 meters long and four stories high, it was built between 1753 and 1756 by the architect Lindet and under the supervision of the engineer Jean-Rodolphe Perronet on the site of the so-called “Guarde” farm. On either side of the central pavilion, surmounted, on the attic floor, by a pediment without sculpture bearing the clock of the former royal glassworks, the building develops on two long wings terminated by pavilions of angle at both ends. The central pavilion has priority over a so-called public courtyard, closed by a wrought iron gate. Opposite the factory is a half-moon to allow the parking of visitors' carriages.

On the ground floor, the building contained the reserves of land, the stake and the deposits of raw materials. The first floor housed the molding, plastering, sculpture and engraving workshops as well as the ovens. On the second floor are described the sculptors, turners, repairers and upholsterers. Finally, the attic floor housed the painters, gilders, animalists and figurists.

In 1756, Louis XV bought all the shares of Sèvres and became its sole shareholder. The factory was then attached to the domain of the Crown in October 1759.

Development of hard porcelain

Originally, the factory produced a soft porcelain, of which Louis-François Ier Gravant discovered the manufacturing secret. In his inventory after death of March 11, 1765, he is designated as “inventor of the porcelains of the royal factory established in Sèvres”. This activity is continued by his son, Louis-François II Gravant.

The government, and in particular the comptroller general of finances Henri Jean Baptiste Bertin (who did not become minister until 1763 and king's commissioner responsible for Sèvres from 1767), was still worried about the advance taken by the Germany in the field of hard porcelain. Bertin was made responsible for the production of hard-paste porcelain in 1759. From November 1759, the factory acquired several pieces of Frankenthal porcelain painted with hunting scenes, with gilt edges and rococo decoration. On March 21, 1760, Bertin asked Jacques-René Boileau, director (1753-1772) of Sèvres, to draw up a questionnaire intended for Paul-Adam Hannong, who answered it on April 25; but the latter died on May 31, 1760; a letter from Pierre-Antoine Hannong (Paul-Adam's second son) dated January 21, 1781 indicates that the latter died before the transaction could be finalized. New overtures are made to Joseph-Adam Hannong (eldest son of Paul-Adam), who claims to be the possessor of particular secrets; but the latter proves to be even more difficult than his father. And Boileau, who travels to Frankenthal, makes sure that these secrets do not differ in any way from those communicated in 1753. The people in charge of Sèvres then contact Pierre-Antoine, who is more accommodating. Pierre-Antoine signs on July 29, 1761 at the notary Vivien du Châtelet in Paris a deed of sale "of the secret processes of porcelain, to the director of the royal factory of Sèvres, the sieur Boileau, duly authorized to deal with this market, subject to the sum of 6,000 pounds in cash and 3,000 pounds of life annuity…”.

After signing, Sèvres realizes that the recipe is inapplicable for lack of raw material; because the first French deposit of kaolin was only discovered in 1765 and it was only from this date that Sèvres could take advantage of the secret purchased.

In the meantime, Pierre-Antoine had to accept the termination of the contract, in exchange for 4,000 pounds in cash and a life pension of 1,200 francs8. Boileau pays the 4,000 pounds to Pierre-Antoine on August 27, 1765. An agreement is also passed according to which Pierre-Antoine must come to Sèvres to test his process in the presence of the chemists Jean Hellot and Pierre Joseph Macquer; delayed by disputes with his brother, the seizure of the land sent from Strasbourg and the sale of the Frankenthal factory, conclusive experiments did not take place until 1763. He then gave Boileau a notebook containing the secrets of hard porcelain, the indications necessary for the construction of the ovens and those for the preparation of the glaze and the colours. According to Lechevallier-Chevignard (op. cit., director of the factory between 1920 and 1938), it was in June 1763 that Louis XV granted a life annuity of 1,200 pounds (instead of the francs indicated by Tainturier), in payment of the “satisfaction of his work in the Sèvres factory”. These experiments cost the factory more than 14,000 pounds. Pierre-Antoine continued his experiments until 1765, the year of a report noting that he “did not have an exact knowledge of the secrets, composition and manipulation”.

In 1763, the Chevalier d'Aigremont, French ambassador to Koblenz, informed Bertin that the director of the Kelsterbach factory was willing to bring his manufacturing processes to Sèvres. The State Councilor Jacques-Dominique de Barberie de Courteilles, consulted, was not enthusiastic but, despite his opinion, Bertin brought in this character who arrived in August 1764: it was the arcanist Christian Daniel Busch, who in 1753 has already lived "off the hook of the factory" without bringing him any valid information. He is authorized to carry out — at his own expense — trials at Sèvres. He had an oven built, said he was waiting for the arrival of raw materials and lived for a few more months "at the expense of the factory".

In reality, the recipes are known: what is missing is the kaolin.

Discovery of French kaolin

Count Louis-Léon de Brancas-Laugarais takes credit for the discovery of French kaolin. He makes porcelain with earth from Maupertuis near Alençon, and the Academy recognizes that his production "is as beautiful as that of Japan". Jean-Étienne Guettard, geologist and former collaborator of the Duke of Orléans, protests that he established in 1750 the identity of the lands of Maupertuis with samples from the Far East and claims to have informed the Academy from that moment . There followed a series of communications to the Academy of Sciences in 1764, to claim the anteriority of the discovery. At the same time, Macquer says that he made porcelain in Sèvres as beautiful and as resistant as that of Hannong, with only French raw materials. He sends samples to Courteille and asks him that the reports of his experiments be deposited in the cabinet of the secrets of the manufacture.

Between 1765 and 1770, Jean-Baptiste Darnet, a surgeon, discovered a kaolin deposit in Saint-Yrieix-la-Perche south of Limoges. On February 13, 1771, the Comte de Thy de Milly of the Paris Academy of Sciences, sent the academy a memoir on the composition of hard porcelain. This memoir was published in 1777 in the Encyclopédie, in the article named “Porcelain”. These works are the result of his observations made in the various factories established in Germany, particularly in Saxony. “Until that time, in the porcelain factories established in France, not excepting that of Séve [Sèvres], only vitreous porcelains had been made, which had only the external appearance of porcelain, but which did not had none of the real qualities…”.


Hard-paste porcelain vases were marketed at the end of 1773.

The tortoiseshell background appeared at Sèvres in 1790. It was used in 1800 for the Cordelier vases intended for the Apollo gallery at the Château de Saint-Cloud in the year X and in 1803 on the tortoiseshell service used by the Emperor at the palace. of the Tuileries.

From 1800 to 1847, the factory took off and acquired its international reputation under the direction of Alexandre Brongniart, appointed by Claude Berthollet.

In 1875, the factory was moved to buildings specially constructed by the government, on the edge of the Saint-Cloud park. It is in these places that production continues into the 21st century.

The premises of the first royal factory located in Sèvres at 1 avenue Léon-Journault were occupied from 1881 by the École Normale Supérieure for young girls and then, from 1945, by the International Center for Educational Studies.

Women at the Royal Factory

In the factory of Vincennes, in full development, in 1748, one creates a “flower shop” made up of about twenty young girls under the direction of Mrs. Gravant. It was active until 1753, when women were banned from working in the factory. In 1756, Sèvres had two hundred male employees.

"[...] the rare women who continued to work in Vincennes and then in Sèvres, after that (the flower shop), now did so at home, bringing and taking back each day, despite the risk of breakage, the delicate works of paint or browning. »

Manufacture of porcelain

Kaolin traditionally came from Saint-Yrieix, near Limoges. Currently, the sources have diversified. The glaze, intended to be applied as enamel on the kaolin paste after firing, consists mainly of Marcognac pegmatite, a mixture of feldspar and quartz.

Sèvres blue is a characteristic color of the factory. It is a cobalt oxide which is incorporated into the glaze.

19th century ovens

Le céramiste Ambroise Milet entre à la manufacture où il est nommé successivement « directeur des fours et des pâtes » et « chef de fabrication » avant de quitter la manufacture en 1883. L'une des plus grandes tâches d'Ambroise Milet est la construction de six grands fours à bois en 1877. En 1993, ces fours sont classés monuments historiques.

Les fours se composent d'un corps cylindrique séparé en trois niveaux, celui du bas dénommé premier laboratoire (diamètre 2,60 m hauteur 3 m), au milieu le second laboratoire (diamètre 2,60 m hauteur 2 m), et en haut le cône de cheminée (2 m). L'alandier est une ouverture dans le bas du premier laboratoire (hauteur 1 m, largeur 0,58 m et profondeur 0,29 m).

Dans la voûte, entre le premier et le deuxième laboratoire, se trouve un grand carneau au centre et neuf petits sur le pourtour. Ces carneaux permettent de guider les flammes et d'évacuer les gaz brûlés. Des grilles appelées « garde-feux » y sont disposés pour diviser la flamme.

Dans le bas du deuxième laboratoire, de petits alandiers permettent d'augmenter encore la température. Le four possède quatre foyers pour bien répartir la chaleur.

Le bois utilisé pour chauffer les fours est exclusivement du bois de bouleau. Sa combustion forte et rapide est uniforme, sa flamme est longue et il dégage peu de cendres. Ce bois est le seul capable de porter le four aux températures recherchées (petit feu vers 800 °C, grand feu vers 1 300 °C). La cuisson se fait avec des bûches de 73 cm de longueur.

Dans ce même four, le biscuit peut être cuit en 15 à 16 heures, et le vernis ou glaçure en 11 à 12 heures.

Une cuisson nécessite 25 stères de bois qui seront brûlés en 48 heures avec une technique précise de montée en température. Le four met ensuite entre quinze et vingt jours pour refroidir. Le mur qui obstrue la porte est démantelé pour le défournement.

Une centaine de pièces sont cuites en même temps, en fonction de leur taille et de leur encombrement.

La cuisson dans ces fours donne des qualités d'émaux inégalables impossibles à obtenir avec d'autres techniques de chauffe. La très grande uniformité de la chaleur dans le four et le refroidissement extrêmement progressif explique ces qualités. Par ailleurs, ces fours sont les seuls capables de produire des pièces de taille exceptionnelle, dont Sèvres s'est fait une spécialité.

La dernière grande cuisson au bois a eu lieu en octobre 2016. L'avant dernière était en 2006, près de 180 pièces ont été mises à « l'Épreuve du Feu », nom de l'exposition qui a ensuite présenté ces pièces, dans la galerie parisienne de la manufacture, avant d'être dispersées. Près d'un an de travail de l'ensemble des ateliers a été nécessaire pour fabriquer et décorer les pièces. L'ouverture du four, comme sa mise à feu ont été retransmises en direct à la télévision. La prochaine cuisson au bois sera indiquée sur le site officiel de la manufacture.

En dehors de ces cuissons exceptionnelles, la manufacture utilise des fours à gaz pour toute sa production courante.