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Bien Hoa ceramics first found fame a century ago and remain much-admired locally and internationally.

By JESSICA NGUYEN on January 13,2019 08:32 AM

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PHOTOS JESSICA NGUYEN

Two important factors created the beauty of Bien Hoa pottery: the quality of the kaolin clay and the skill of the potters

I still vividly remember a winter’s day 30 years ago. It was first and only time my father hit me. It was the day I broke the only ceramic vase in our home - a green glazed Bien Hoa vase with delicate embossed yellow daisy decorations. Dad had bought it in Saigon in the 1970s. It was considered a “family treasure” and accompanied us through many ups and downs. He was very, very angry, because not only was the vase worth a small fortune it also had great sentimental value.

He never did a get chance to buy any Bien Hoa pottery again. Now that he’s passed away, I buy a lot of pottery and place it on his altar as an apology. Perhaps my love for Bien Hoa pottery originates from the sad memories of that time.

Bien Hoa pottery has a unique beauty and is especially popular as modern interior décor because of the perfect combination of beautiful rustic shapes, rich colorful glaze, and Western-style decorative patterns. All thanks to the first artists who created this line of ceramics - Mr. and Ms. Balick from France.

CENTURIES OF HISTORY

In 1903, the Bien Hoa Vocational School (initially the École Professionnelle de Bien Hoa) was established by the French and was the first vocational school in Indochina. In about 1913, the school changed its name to Bien Hoa Fine Art School (École d’Art indigène de Bien Hoa).

In 1923, when husband and wife Robert Balick, the Principal, and Mariette Balick, Head of the Ceramic Department, arrived at the school, it was a milestone that changed the quality of Bien Hoa pottery after 200 years . Ms. Balick decided to focus on the line of colorful decorative ceramics with unique carved patterns as well as distinctive enamel colors. Most of these enamels, which she created with Vietnamese colleagues, were made from natural materials such as straw, clay, bronze ash, grey sand from the beach in Da Nang, and red laterite soil from Bien Hoa.

Bien Hoa fine art pottery quickly became a major ceramic brand and gained fame throughout Europe and Asia. In 1925, the ceramic products from the Bien Hoa Fine Arts School were displayed at an international exhibition held in Paris. All sold out, and orders for more were plentiful. They even received an honorary certificate from the French Government and a gold medal from the exhibition’s organizing committee. Later, at another international exhibition in Paris in 1933, Bien Hoa ceramics secured its position in the French and international ceramic market. Bien Hoa Fine Art School’s products have regularly been showcased at large exhibitions inside and outside of the country, such as Nagoya, Japan (1937), Hanoi (1938), Saigon (1942), Bangkok (1953 and 1955), and Phnom Penh (1957). Its popularity flourished right through to the end of the 20th century.

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UNIQUE ARTWORKS

“Bien Hoa pottery is beautiful and unique in both design and patterns thank to the combination of Vietnamese, Chinese and Cham ceramics into one product,” said Bien Hoa ceramics researcher Tran Dinh Qua.

In the 19th century, the southern and Mekong Delta region in Vietnam saw the convergence of many cultures and ethnic minority groups. Bien Hoa potters cleverly borrowed chrysanthemum, dragon, and phoenix motifs from Chinese pottery and the portrait of the Goddess Tara from the Champa culture, and also developed their own range of motifs, taken from ancient Vietnamese folk tales.

Two important factors created the beauty of Bien Hoa pottery: the quality of the kaolin clay and the skill of the potters. “The preeminent feature of Bien Hoa pottery is that they are all hand made,” said Qua. “From the process of kneading the kaolin and shaping the item on a pottery wheel to drawing, carving and painting; all are done by hand.”

It takes potters one or two days to finish a small simple product, such as a ceramic pig, starting from forming the shape, carving the patterns, painting each pattern with enamel, and then firing the pottery. The color of the product depends on the talent of the glaze maker, while the finished product depends on the talent of the kilners. While such ceramic pigs seem simple at first glance, the details are quite complex.

The technique used for making the enamel is very important, as this stage will determine the color of the product. Enamel painting is also another important step, requiring talent from the painter. In completing this step, the painter must be careful, or else the product will be distorted and deformed.

The materials to make the enamel are equally important, as poor-quality materials affect the product’s aesthetics. Whether a certain product sells better than a similar product from other ceramic makers lies not only in the design but also in the color of the enamel. Every producer has their own secret techniques for making enamel.

The firing stage is another key element. Artisans must be experienced, accurately determining temperature by eye and regulating it in the furnace as appropriate.

“Bien Hoa pottery has both artistic and general use values that go far beyond the value of a daily household appliance, partly thanks to the skill of the potters,” researcher Qua said. The talent of Bien Hoa potters is their ability to both absorb and integrate the quintessential features of diversified cultures in their products.

When admiring dining sets from Bien Hoa, many people are amazed at the creativity of the artisans. In a design of flowers and lotus leaves, a set of dishes and cups is created full of softness and nobility. Retaining the shape of an ordinary bowl, the potter gives it a softness by the ripple lines, which are divided by lotus petals. Adding to this is the shape of the plate. Resembling a lotus leaf, the plate cherishes the flower bud within it. On the green glaze of the plate are some black and yellow dots that make it look like a real lotus leaf!

In addition to dining products, Bien Hoa interior décor pottery is also extremely diverse and unique, in a range of items such as elephants, square or round shapes, flowerpots, statues, and small ceramics in animal shapes. The decorative motifs on these ceramic products are modern and sophisticated, using light enamel glaze and elegant colored enamel.

Bearing both artistic and contemporary elements in each product, for over a hundred years since it was born, Bien Hoa pottery remains beloved by ceramic collectors, both local and international.

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