Gzhel is the name of a traditional Russian craft production of porcelain and pottery items – dishes, tiles, and other decorative pieces. To be more precise, Gzhel is the name of a region southeast of Moscow that includes about 27 villages and small towns which comprise the so-called “Gzhel Bush” where this pottery production and porcelain manufacturing are based.
The porcelain-pottery industry developed there due to the presence of clay that is perfectly suited for these purposes. Around 1800 the artisan Kulikov brothers discovered the secret to white porcelain earthenware and since then the region has been the center of this porcelain craft. The Kulikovs tried to keep their recipe and technology secret, but could not hide the information for long; soon, a porcelain-making tradition spread throughout the area.
The owner of a famous porcelain enterprise by the name of Kuznetsov was definitely from Gzhel region. He founded a small workshop and started porcelain production in 1812. Remarkably, by 1917 Kuznetsov’s manufacturing plants produced two-thirds of all porcelain goods in Russia, and his company had the largest porcelain factory in Europe. After the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, when Communist took control of Russia, the huge enterprise was nationalized.
When we hear the word Gzhel today, we imagine white porcelain goods with bright blue painting; these are the hallmarks of Gzhel products. Craftsmen in the region produce a wide range of utensils and decorative items – porcelain sculptures and figurines, boxes, vases, candlesticks, ashtrays, and even clocks. Coloring is done with special cobalt paint that is applied to raw unglazed porcelain pieces. Then the painted products are baked in high-temperature kilns. As a result of this firing, the cobalt paint becomes almost black before turning bright, vivid blue. The products are then coated with glaze and fired a second time. This technique protects the painting very well.
Despite using only one color of cobalt, porcelain production artists get lively paintings with many shades of blue. This is achieved through a brush technique where various strokes produce different thicknesses of paint and effect varying degrees of translucency. Currently, there are some relatively large enterprises in Gzhel region; however, production of traditional Gzhel porcelain still engages a lot of small workshops. These workshops offer custom-made items, with each of their products an original, one-of-a-kind piece.
Hand painted with cobalt blue on white porcelain, Gzhel remains one of the favorite symbols of Russian arts and handicrafts. Gzhel is now not only a national art form, but also a true cultural and historical symbol of Russia. Every Russian family has at least one piece of Gzhel kitchenware. So, if you want to take home something very traditional and completely Russian, you should definitely buy a set of Gzhel porcelain ware. Products made in Gzhel style can be purchased in many places – factory stores, specialized porcelain shops in some large cities, as well as in souvenir shops and gift stores.