To learn the story of American Belleek we must first travel across the waters to County Fermanagh, Ireland to a little town called Belleek. The year is 1857 and we learn that Belleek is ultra lightweight, translucent and has a pearly iridescent glaze which has just been perfected by one Jules Henri Brianchon. This Belleek is a superior quality porcelain., The reason for the high quality of this porcelain is that English and Irish workers were coaxed over to Ireland to work in the manufacture of Belleek. With this abundance of talented men all co-operating, Irish Belleek soon became the eggshell thin translucent porcelain we all recognize.
Upon learning that American manufacturers were trying to perfect the new porcelain, a few of these workers traveled to America. They went from factory to factory assisting the Americans wherever they needed to get the quality desired for their American Belleek patterns.
These first examples of American Belleek were exact replicas of the Irish Belleek, possibly even daintier. Soon, however, American Belleek branched out in new directions, incorporating Oriental, Indian, French, Dutch and countless other designs and combinations.
The 19th century was a time of great turmoil. Europe was besieged with unemployment. Thousands were emigrating to the US in search of a better life, freedom from want, and freedom from religious and political persecution. Those workers with skills were wanted, needed and ready to work wherever and whenever necessary to make a new beginning for themselves and their families.
Some unique pieces came out of this mixed union of workers. I recently bought a Willetts Belleek mug painted a delicate shade of green, with a little Dutch boy and girl walking arm in arm under an umbrella. They look as if they havenít a care in the world. Looming over them in the form of a handle, is a huge gold Oriental dragon. Looking hungry enough to devour them and their umbrella. Until reading up on American Belleek, I couldnít figure out why someone would put those two designs together. After understanding how the company was formed, itís now easy to see how the two ideas came to be combined into such an eclectic piece. One look at the mug and I wanted it; the kids looked as if they needed a benefactor to protect them.
Ott and Brewer in 1882 started producing Belleek. They made cups and saucers so delicate that a set of one dozen weighed barely a pound. Most Ott and Brewer pieces are found in museums and it is now so a rare as to be impossible to find. If you luck onto a piece youíre way ahead of the rest of us.
The Willets Manufacturing Company started manufacturing Belleek in 1879 with the help of the traveling artisans. They became so proficient that they were soon competing with Limoges, Dresden, and other foreign companies. Their wares included small picture frames, openwork bottles, pitchers and items similar to the Irish wares. Willets is hard to find but there are a few pieces around.
The Ceramic Art Company, in the Worldís Colombian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago displayed a Belleek vase resembling porcelain bisque. A lady, using a jackknife had carved intricate designs of flowers and children in the vase before it was fired. Needless to say, it became a huge success.
This company sold large quantities of china blanks to professional and amateur artists. CAC operated from 1889 to 1894 when Lenox took over the business and continued manufacturing Lenox Belleek. These two companies are a little easier to find as they were still being manufactured during this century.
Knowles, Taylor and Knowles began manufacturing a Belleek type porcelain which they called Lotus Ware after 1889. It was extremely expensive to manufacture and not much in demand at that time so they ceased producing Lotus Ware in 1896. Having been in production for such a short era, Lotus Ware is another nearly impossible item to find.
Less than 20 companies manufactured American Belleek during a short 50 year period. This short period of production makes Merican Belleek one of the more desired American collectables in the collecting field. The supply is extremely limited so collectors would be wise to get it when they find it as a second chance will probably not come around.
I havenít room here to list all the companies who produced Belleek in America. If you are interested in collecting Belleek, you need to know itís not all marked Belleek for starters, then get yourself a good book to help you on your way.
Mary Frank Gaston published American Belleek in 1984. Her book is a wealth of information and contains many colored pages of American Belleek from several companies along with marks, etc. necessary to the collector. In the bibliography she lists her sources of information so you can certainly follow up and learn as much or as little about American Belleek as you wish. -Jo Ann Havens Wright. Also thanks to "easthills", firstname.lastname@example.org, a major collector and seller of American Belleek for the bottom right two pictures for reference.
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