Why do I make my china in China? A trip to the origins of ceramics

When I sit on my wheel to make pots, depending on what mood I’m in, I often find myself inspired by something I’ve seen or experienced, or I get reflective, or indeed both. As the noise of the wheel goes round I found myself recently reflecting on the past. It reminds me of the incredible paths one can take as a craftsperson.

So… it was 2007, and I had just flown 6000 miles from my studio in Kent to Hong Kong. I was swimming in a pool some 34 floors up on the top of a hotel roof with eagles flying overhead, observing Hong Kong from my aquatic-vantage point, waking up to a new day. As I dutifully did my lengths in the pool, it suddenly hits me that it was my craft what got me there. It was my passion and persistence in trying to create something on a wheel what fundamentally got me to this extraordinary place.

Keith Brymer Jones Ceramics

The reason for flying a third of the way around the world was that I had to visit various ceramic factories in China. Pottery/ceramic production from China is some of the most exquisite, important and oldest in the world. The Chinese have been producing ceramics since the Neolithic age and over the centuries they have refined and honed their craft to astounding and impressive results. This all happened at a time where here, in the West we were barely out of using wooden bowls (nothing against wooden bowls, but you get my drift!)

With all of the above swirling around in my head as the water was swirling down the filtration drain in the pool as I was doing my daily exercise I had a moment; a moment of self-acknowledgement that there I was, incredibly excited to see what and how I could take this opportunity to new heights and experiences.

A humble potter going to where, arguably, the concept of modern-day ceramic production started all those centuries ago – admittedly sometimes on pain of death by an over-enthusiastic warlord presiding over a dynasty-, but, hey! there’s nothing like a bit of pressure to push the envelope. Fortunately, the days of ‘pain of death’ in China are over in ceramics. No, what I found was incredibly encouraging, not just in terms of the working conditions, but also the technology, technical skills and abilities of the factories. Most of the factories we visited were family-run factories that had been handed down generation after generation.

I recall one occasion when I was sitting with an older man, the factory owner or father of the family, and as we spoke through an interpreter (although I hasten to add my business partner does speak Mandarin which is no mean feat, to say the least). I could see his fingers exploring the hand-thrown sample that I had presented to him. He was constantly feeling his way around the form, calculating the volume. At that moment alone you could sense the years of experience he had gained not just through his own hard work, but the generations before him to then use literally at his fingertips. It was an overwhelming moment, and as you can probably guess I got somewhat emotional. For me, it was a pivotal moment not just from the point of view of having a conversation through a created object, my created object; but also the point where my craft transcended into another realm of creativity. A production process whereby my idea would be taken and given to highly skilled people of a different culture, and a different set of skills and emulated to a point where this could be taken around the world, and be made of a type clay that quite frankly is one of the best clays in the world: Chinese porcelain.

Chinese porcelain is predominantly hard-paste porcelain as it has a certain feldspathic material called Petuntse which allows for the porcelain to be incredibly durable. It also allows for whatever you’re making to be only fired once in the usual process which really appealed to me as it cuts down on the amount of energy needed to produce a particular range of ceramics.

As I walked through the factories I was highly aware of this connection between crafts and the process of production within a factory setting. It firmed up my belief that it was the material itself, the clay what it’s undoubtedly at the core of anyone who was involved in making ceramic pots and here I was, in China, experiencing first hand the enormous experience of the staff in producing it.

As I have seen in Stoke on Trent, skilled workers handling the clay as if it was second nature. Clay is a material I had grown to love, as old as the Earth itself, it was destined to be a material that the humankind would work with, in all manner of ways to communicate, excite and to practically use throughout our collective history on this planet.

And as I sat on the plane to come back to the U.K. I reflected on all the people I had met, all the wonderful factories I had visited and thought to myself that for me, I’m ok with China producing china (the clue is in the name! )

If I was producing clothing or cuddly toys, or for that matter mobile phones, would I feel differently? Who knows? But to produce ceramic from its very birthplace, it was a no brainer. I can only marvel at and respect the craftsmanship and deep history. Would I like to produce in the U.K. in the future? Yes of course. I would love to do that too, and it is one of my ultimate goals in my life.