Identifying Sevres Porcelain

Even if not in the business of buying or selling antiques and collectibles many people in the world at large are aware that Sevres is the name of an important maker and decorator of porcelain in France. What they may not know, however, is how widely faked and copied Sevres has been throughout the centuries.

A Brief History
Established at Chateau de Vincennes in 1738, where the soft paste porcelain formula was only used in manufacture, as a Royal Manufactury under Louis XV the porcelain factory was moved to larger quarters in the village of Sevres, about 6 miles southwest of the center of Paris, in 1756. The King’s new factory began its production at the very same time that Saxony became embroiled in the Seven Years War (1756 – 1763) resulting in the closing of the Meissen factory for a time. This fortuitous turn of events granted Sevres preeminence as the supplier of porcelain for royalty and the wealthy and swift dominance as arbiter of taste and quality in porcelain design.

Not until about 1769 did Sevres begin producing hard paste porcelain. The soft paste porcelain formula which had proved such a success for them continued to be employed for a time, as well, since the lower firing temperature required for its manufacture allowed the continuation of decoration with the same rich palette of colors for which they were known. But being more expensive to make, the soft paste formula was abandoned entirely in 1804 and not used again by the factory until its revival in 1854.

Early on royal edicts made it a crime to produce wares similar to those made at Sevres, with the king holding a monopoly on certain forms, types of decoration, and even application of gilding. It was also illegal to copy the Sevres (the king’s) mark. The need for legal restrictions was obvious since porcelain manufacture was a lucrative enterprise and the market throughout Europe was strong. Despite the illegal nature of the undertaking, though, almost from the beginning there were many Paris porcelain makers who copied not only decorative aspects of Sevres porcelain, but its royal mark was aped, as well. Outside of Paris, too, porcelain factories were busily faking soft paste Sevres in hard paste in the 1770’s. Hard paste examples of items bearing Sevres marks - ciphers which only should be found on soft paste forms - has never stopped. Even today the same types of bogus reproductions continue to be made.

The Mark
The royal cipher was introduced as the Sevres mark at Vincennes in 1739. That mark is a mirror imaged upper case L, interlaced. Date code letters starting with an upper case A began to be added to the mark in 1753 and progressed through the alphabet until 1793 when the monarchy was over thrown and the French Republic took control of the factory. Unfortunately, after the French Revolution rooms full of undecorated soft paste ware were sold off, to eventually be painted by outside decorators in the Sevres style. While any of those pieces surviving to the present day may well have artwork executed on a Sevres ‘blank’ they were decorated without the permission of the factory. They are referred to as pseudo-Sevres and continue to be difficult for collectors to identify because they are on soft paste bodies that were produced by the factory.

With the revival of the Rococo style in the mid-1800’s many Paris factories began to make copies of early Sevres wares. Often these pieces bore no mark at all, but some were marked with a fake Sevres mark that can be very convincing if one is not aware of what to look for in order to identify the real article. The most helpful thing to always bear in mind when presented with any piece of porcelain bearing a Sevres mark is this – the royal cipher mark of Sevres is the most commonly faked mark to be found on porcelain.

Is it Really Sevres?
How can a non-authentic piece be identified?

First, expect both the body type (soft paste/hard paste) and the form in which that porcelain type is expressed to be right for the factory’s use during the time period.

Second, are the ground colors right for the year suggested by the mark you see? Various known and identifiable colors often had terms of tenure and popularity.

Third, all artwork from enameled decoration to gilding should be extremely fine. The decorative processes, like the making of the porcelain grounds on which they were painted, were sophisticated and strictly controlled. The very best artists were employed by Sevres and they didn’t do hasty or slap-dash work. Pieces not considered ultra-fine and suitable for presentation to royalty would have been discarded - not sold. Sevres gilding, too, is best described as sumptuous. It was built up in layers, so it should have a distinct three-dimensional look. This means it should not be flat, but raised from the surface and easily felt with the fingers.

The Importance of Accurate Identification
In summary, know this; in an effort to fool buyers into presuming manufacture by Sevres many, many beautiful objects have been created over the last two hundred and fifty or so years. Still, no matter how beautiful or well made, those items will never be identifiable as Sevres porcelain. A dealer should not present an item to be such unless they have no doubt that a piece by Sevres is in fact what it is they are selling.

Though there may have been an anonymous 'community' of decorators living in the vicinity of Sevres before and after the French Revolution, and though that group may have busied themselves creating imitations of Sevres porcelain, there is no professionally recognized reason for suggesting items decorated by them should be identifiable as ‘Sevres’ because they lived in the same town where the factory was located. In regard to creating listings in a shop, if the keyword ‘Sevres’ is used in an item title to reference a porcelain object, it should be for the purpose of identifying a work created by the very specific and important porcelain factory known as Sevres. It is not a keyword that should used in title or category to suggest an item is in the ‘Sevres style’ or ‘Sevres-like,’ though if the comparison is accurately made, ‘Sevres style’ may be acceptable to use in an item description.

Cunning insertion of important keywords in an item title or constructing descriptions in such a way as to make an item seem to perhaps be something more than what it really is, are poor habits to fall into. Misapplied or casual use of an important keyword can easily encourage a prospective buyer to make an incorrect assumption about the maker of an item, as well as have the effect, whether intended or not, of misdirecting users of search engines to items that are not legitimately Sevres.


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