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Elegance of celadon pottery: A visit to Chiang Mai’s celadon factories

Celadon pottery is not just an art form; it’s a testament to the rich cultural heritage of the region where it is crafted, be it in China or, in this case, Thailand. The delicate green glaze, achieved through meticulous firing techniques, has been perfected over generations. It’s a tradition that speaks of patience, skill, and an intimate connection with the earth.

The art of making celadon originated in China more than 2000 years ago and was later introduced in Thailand.

While antique celadon pieces are often highly valued and command significant prices in the market due to factors such as age, provenance, historical significance and craftsmanship, contemporary pieces also stand as beautiful objects that hold their own market value. The artistry and craftsmanship continue to thrive, offering collectors and enthusiasts a chance to appreciate the evolving legacy of celadon pottery.

In the outskirts of Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, where tradition seamlessly meets artistry, I had the pleasure of visiting a few celadon pottery factories in 2019. Celadon, with its distinctive jade-like glaze, has been a cherished art form for centuries, and my experience at these factories was nothing short of fascinating.

Upon entering the first primitive location, I was captivated by the array of shapes the craftswomen were skillfully creating using molds sculpted a hundred years before. As the primitive kilns, with their specific charcoal scent, continued to operate, I was treated to detailed explanations of the glazing process.

Glazing process of celadon pottery

The glazing process of celadon pottery is a meticulous and intricate procedure that contributes to the distinctive appearance of celadon wares. Celadon is characterized by its pale green, jade-like color, and achieving this unique glaze involves careful attention to both the composition of the glaze and the firing process. Here is a general overview of the glazing process for celadon pottery:

Clay preparation: The process begins with the selection of high-quality clack clay, rich in iron, found in local rice fields around Chiang Mai. The choice of clay is crucial as it influences the final color and texture of the pottery.  

Forming the pottery: Skilled potters shape the clay into the desired form using techniques such as wheel-throwing or hand-building. The form must be well-crafted to ensure an even application of the glaze.

Bisque Firing: The shaped pottery is fired in a kiln at a lower temperature in a process called bisque or biscuit firing. This initial firing removes moisture from the clay and prepares it for glazing.

Glaze application: Celadon glazes are typically composed of feldspar, kaolin, and wood ash. The ash is mixed with water and then fermented. Once appropriate density and ph. levels are reached, it is ready to be used as a glaze. This technique, a completely natural process, is part of the traditional knowledge that has been passed down thrugh generations.  Iron oxide is also added to achieve the characteristic green color. The glaze is applied to the bisque-fired pottery using various methods, such as dipping, brushing, or spraying.

Carving and inlay (optional): Some celadon pieces undergo additional decorative techniques, such as carving intricate patterns or inlaying contrasting clays. These techniques create visually appealing designs and textures on the finished piece.

Firing: The glazed pottery undergoes a high-temperature firing (1260 -1300 degrees Celsius) in a reduction atmosphere kiln. A reduction firing involves controlling the amount of oxygen during the firing process. This is critical for the development of the celadon color. The iron in the glaze reacts with the reduced oxygen environment to produce the characteristic green hue.

Cooling: Once the firing is complete, the kiln is allowed to cool slowly. This gradual cooling is essential to prevent thermal shock, ensuring that the pottery doesn’t crack or break.

Final inspection: After cooling, the celadon pottery is carefully examined for any defects. The final result should showcase the smooth, translucent green glaze that is synonymous with celadon. It is science and art combined

Siam Celadon

Siam Celadon

At the second studio, Siam Celadon, I was immediately captivated by the more skilled artisans gracefully molding the clay into exquisite forms. They pride themselves on setting an established template for the celadon industry since the 16th century even if this factory was only founded in 1976. Here, the air was thick with creativity, and the adjoining boutique was adorned with an array of delicate greenware after its transformation in the kilns. Each displayed piece seemed to tell a story, and I couldn’t resist bringing a piece of this timeless artistry home with me. The choice was difficult!

Thanks to my husband, my attention was then drawn to a particularly stunning celadon vase in the glass display. Its graceful curves, with the carved hearts in the neck plus the subtle interplay of greens, made it an irresistible addition to my collection.

I also bought a set of traditional tea cups there, but I still regret to this day not buying a blue celadon vase.

Blue celadon refers to a type of ceramic or pottery that combines the traditional celadon glaze with shades of blue. Although traditional celadon is characterized by a distinctive jade-like green color, artisans have experimented with various color variations, and blue celadon is one such adaptation. It doesn’t represent a distinct category in traditional ceramics classification.

In blue celadon pottery, the glaze contains elements that produce a blue hue, creating a visually appealing contrast with the typical green celadon. The blue coloration can vary, ranging from subtle hints of blue to more pronounced and vibrant shades, depending on the specific glaze composition and firing conditions.

Some celadon pieces may feature Chinese motifs in relief, adding intricate and culturally significant designs to the smooth glaze. Due to the added craftsmanship, these pieces often command a higher cost.

There were also few white pieces. I learnt that, as with other variations, the creation of white celadon involves careful attention to the composition of the glaze and precise firing conditions. The result is a ceramic piece that may showcase the classic celadon characteristics, such as a translucent and glossy glaze, but in a white or light-colored palette. Finally, some pieces are heavily decorated or are sculpted as elephants and Foo dogs; these fetch a higher price.

Back at home, the celadon vase now occupies a special place, infusing my space with the tranquility and elegance that this unique pottery is renowned for. It serves as a reminder of the skilled hands that crafted it and the rich history encapsulated in each layer of glaze. It is beautiful on its own, but it becomes magnificent filled with flowers from my garden!

For those enchanted by the allure of celadon, a visit to a pottery factory in Chiang Mai is an experience not to be missed. The blending of tradition and artistry creates an atmosphere where the past seamlessly intertweaves with the present, leaving visitors with a deeper appreciation for this timeless craft.

If you find yourself in Chiang Mai, make sure to explore the world of celadon pottery. We had to do a little research and hire a cab to get there, but it was worth the detour. It’s not just about acquiring a piece of art; it’s about immersing yourself in the history, culture, and enduring beauty of a craft that has stood the test of time.

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