Porcelain and houses
The material of which the Christmas houses are made is usually porcelain.
Porcelain is a special form of ceramics or pottery art. A lot of knowledge and experience is required for making porcelain. In the composition of porcelain, kaolin, an unruly, white clay, is used, mixed with quartz and a feldspar. A high temperature is required when baking. Porcelain is therefore hard, translucent and sounds clear. Porcelain is odorless and tasteless and hardly discolours, even if it has been in the shipwreck for several centuries at the bottom of the sea. It is mainly used to produce plates, bowls and other dishes that serve when serving food. In addition, the material is chosen for the production of objects that have a function as interior decoration such as Christmas houses.
The cradle of porcelain is located in the ancient Chinese empire, where it dates from the 7th to the 9th century AD. at the time of the Tang Dynasty was developed to imitate the expensive green jade and the white jasper. After the Chinese had become acquainted with Persian ceramics, cobalt was imported from that country to manufacture the famous blue-white porcelain. In the 14th century, painting a decor became more and more important than the usually gloomy glaze. In Europe thin, shiny and translucent porcelain was unknown until the 13th century. The explorer Marco Polo became one of the first Europeans to become acquainted with porcelain eating utensils. He compared the shiny material with the delicate pink shell of a sea snail that was called porcella (little pig) in Italian and gave it the name porcellana. Initially the porcelain was supplied via the silk route. In Istanbul, in the Topkapi Palace an old and important Chinese collection can be seen. The Chinese also produced for the Arab market, objects without human images, with a deep kind of (Mohammedan) blue. In Turkey, Iznik ceramics were produced, increasingly influenced by Chinese porcelain. Only when the Portuguese discovered the sea route to China around 1517, the porcelain became popular in Europe. Philips II had 3000 pieces of Chinese porcelain and in Lisbon 15 warehouses were already possible in 1585. In the Netherlands porcelain was known, then around 1603. Three Portuguese ships were hijacked, loaded with silk and porcelain. At the auctions of the VOC the so-called squat porcelain (no Christmas houses!) Brought a lot of money.
Clay is required for making porcelain. Clay has the special property that it can be kneaded when the material is wet. The clay is stored for several months in dark basements or wells to rot. Many clays are too fat to be processed without addition. In order to make porcelain, it is added to the clay, kaolin, which is as white as possible, silver sand (quartz) to make the mass less greasy and to become vitreous when heated. The special thing about porcelain is that a pulverized stone is added to the clay, feldspar (or granite), to reduce the baking temperature. The ratio between the three different ingredients is 2: 1: 1. The water is then squeezed out of the mass and the “dough” is ready for further preparation.
After the formation of the object with the help of a turntable and molds, a drying process of three months follows. Then European porcelain is baked twice. The first time at 900 ° C, after which the biscuit is created. Then the glaze (an aqueous mixture of china clay, mixed with tin or lead) is applied. Smooth baking takes place at ca 1400 ° C and lasts a day and a half. During baking, the shrinkage is a big problem, about 10% of the mass has evaporated.
When the oven is burnt down and cooled, the porcelain is assessed for quality. In the 18th century, sometimes half of the production had to be thrown away (the so-called misbakels), due to a too low or too high baking temperature. Many porcelain factories did not last long and went bankrupt. Usually the object is painted in refined colors, after which the decorations are baked in an oven at 600-900 ° C.
One of the first and most prominent companies that made and still makes the porcelain houses is Department56 in the USA. This company started as a business gifts department of the firm Bachmann, a large company in Minneapolis USA. According to the business legend, the decision was made to introduce illuminated village houses after a group of friends working for Bachmann were inspired by the small town of Stillwater, where they had just had a dinner and looked out at the Christmas decorations in the valley when it snowed. In 1976 she introduced the first village line, the “Original snow village” of six houses executed in ceramic (shiny porcelain). Eventually the company separated after an unprecedented success of Bachmann. In 1992, Department 56 was sold to the New York Investment Firm, Forstmann Little, nowadays the Lenox group and became the company it is today. In 2009 the Lenox group comes under “chapter eleven” an American expression for postponement of payments and 24 April 2009, due to the global crisis, Department56 is resold to Enesco, a world leader in collectables and gifts.
After having been available in America and Canada for many years, the “villages” of Department56 made the crossing in 2006 and were imported to Europe by the firm PeHa in Sneek. After the takeover of Department 56 by Enesco UK, Department56 no longer enters through an importer, but from now on it will enter the market through Enesco’s own channels. Unfortunately, they unfortunately skip Europe.
The history of Lemax, like that of Dickensville or Luville, is slightly less glamorous than that of Department56. Dickensville and Lemax were once brought to the market in America as an ‘affordable’ alternative to Department56 with the aim of (logically) of course nothing more or less than, with a cheaper imitation, taking sales from the market leader. “Affordable proved feasible” because these brands had their own low-cost production in the Far East and, especially in the beginning, enthusiastically copied, resulting in little or no costs for their own product development. A very smart strategy turned out, because the market already existed, the product was a proven sales success and there were (are) plenty of growth opportunities.
The immense success of Lemax is the result of this.
But a smart copy strategy can also be copied again, and that is why importer PeHa introduced the brand Dickensville (Noma) from America – produced in China – earlier and cheaper than Lemax on the European market. When Lemax decided in 2006 to stop the brokering for Europe, the firm Edelman came with their own brand Luville. In the years that followed, a few brands added and disappeared. More and more polystone and / or plastic houses have also been added.