Even though the word Limoges is synonymous with fine bone china, it was not until the late 18th century that the chief ingredient for porcelain, a mineral called kaolin, was discovered in the nearby town of Saint-Yrieix. In 1771, the brothers Massié and Fourneira Grellet established the first Limoges porcelain factory. It was successful enough that the King of France purchased the plant in 1784 so it could exclusively make white porcelain to be decorated at the royal porcelain factory at Sèvres outside of Paris.
During the 19th century, particularly during the Victorian era, a number of famous porcelain factories established themselves, including Alluaud, Baignol, Gibus et Cie., Pouyat, and Tharaud. French ceramists and businessmen founded the majority of these factories, but it took an American to make Limoges an international household name.
In 1842, a New Yorker named David Haviland built a factory in Limoges that would become the most famous Limoges brand of them all. Haviland china was made in Limoges for the U.S. market, and over the years the various firms that have used the Haviland name produced more than 20,000 patterns of china and dinnerware. In 1880, one of those Haviland patterns led to a commission from the White House, which boosted the firm’s growing reputation.
By the 19th century, Limoges was so popular in Victorian England that so-called Limoges ware was being made in Worcester. But this sort of cross-fertilization was not the mere plagiarism that it might at first seem. Indeed, Limoges factories also borrowed freely from their influencers. In the 19th century, for example, Limoges potteries copied the styles and patterns produced by Japanese and Indian makers; much of this “Oriental” Limoges ware was made for the new U.S. market.
In the Edwardian era, when dainty gilded tea sets were a common Limoges product, a similar homage was paid to Meissen, Sèvres, and Viennese porcelain makers, whose 18th-century vases were routinely produced by Limoges factories for their high-end customers. Some Limoges pieces featured copies of famous paintings by J.M.W. Turner on their sides. Later, in the 20th century, the Japanese porcelain manufacturer Noritake would base many of its designs on those made by companies based in Limoges a century earlier.
One group of Limoges pieces that are more particular to Limoges are the blanks that, in the 1800s, were sent to the U.S. to be decorated by members of amateur china-painting guilds. Painters in these guilds would typically follow the instruction manuals and patterns that came with the unfinished plates and vases. These pieces are not especially collectible today, but many are lovely, which means a handsome collection can be put together rather inexpensively.
Finally there were the Limoges bonbonnières, or small porcelain boxes in which women would keep strong sweets eaten to disguise bad breath. Antique Limoges bonbonnières from the 19th century are quite collectible, and they made a reputation for Limoges firms. That’s probably one reason why in postwar France, just about every gift shop catering to tourists did a respectable business selling novelty Limoges miniatures. Today these dollhouse size porcelain pianos, beds, tables, and chairs make charming collectibles.