The process of glazing ceramics is pretty straightforward: a silica-based blend of chemicals and minerals is applied to porous ceramic (porcelain, earthenware, stoneware, china, raku, or any other type) and then fired, or baked, in a super-hot oven, or kiln, until the mixture melts and adheres to the ceramic surface. When it cools, this process results in the glass-like finish we are all familiar with, a finish that is impervious to liquids.
While there are many types of glazes, some of the most unusual, as well as some of the prettiest, are known as lusterware.
Luster is a type of glaze produced by the addition of metallic salts resulting in an iridescent finish: a “luster.” In addition to luminosity, luster can produce deep, brilliant colour effects that are impossible to achieve by any other method.
Originating in ancient Persia in the ninth or tenth century, the luster process migrated to Spain and Italy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, where the effect was created with gold and platinum salts. During the Napoleonic wars of the early nineteenth century, gold became scarce and ceramicists turned to silver salts, which are still in use.
A further refinement of lusterware was developed by British ceramicists, also in the early nineteenth century: glaze that imparts the appearance of gold, silver, or other precious metals to a ceramic object. Most often created to mimic sterling silver, it was commonly known as “poor man’s silver.” The glaze may either completely cover a piece or be painted on in a decorative pattern. These pieces most often take a functional form – particularly teapots and teacups – and have generally been created from a thicker clay body in order to withstand the heat and the regular handling without breaking. Still produced today, this type of lusterware not only costs significantly less than sterling silver, it requires less upkeep: unlike silver it doesn’t need to be polished.
Lusterware was also a popular product of occupied Japan. In fact, a significant portion of the tea ware manufactured during that period was luster glazed. (See my previous article “Tea wares from Occupied Japan.”)
Look for modern lusterware in tableware stores and vintage pieces in antiques shops, both brick-and-mortar and online. You can also find individual artisan pieces at high-end crafts shops and crafts fairs, as well as from individual potters. Whether you choose contemporary designs or classic antiques, lusterware can add a bright, beautiful touch to your tea table.
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