The legendary Zsolnay porcelain is a fixed star on the sky of Hungarian manufacturing. The company was established in the city of Pécs by the Zsolnay family in 1853. While the establishment of the firm is linked to Miklós Zsolnay, his two sons, Ignác and Vilmos are also known as key figures in the development of the factory. As a matter of fact, it was Vilmos Zsolnay under whom the company attained international recognition—he took Zsolnay crafts to the 1873 World Fair in Vienna and the 1878 World Fair in Paris, where the products gained widespread appreciation, making Zsolnay products internationally well-known.
In the early development of the business, the family played a key role. While the male members of the Zsolnay family were mostly involved in running the business and working on developing new technologies to produce and decorate ceramics, the female members of the family were responsible for the design. The mostly Hungarian- and Persian-inspired designs were developed primarily thanks to Júlia and Teréz Zsolnay.
As a result of its luxurious style and outstanding craftmanship, by 1882 the company had almost 500 employees, while
by the early 19th century Zsolnay became one of the largest companies in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy.
The two technological developments that made the company to be what it is today were the eosin glazing process and the use of pyrogranite. The eosin is an iridescent glazing technique that is named after the Greek goddess Eos, the goddess of dawn. Eosin that gives the ceramics a metallic, glass-like appearance was utilised by members of the Art Nouveau movement. The second technological innovation that is associated with Zsolnay is pyrogranite. The frost-resisting pyrogranite that can be utilized for both interior and exterior decorations, as well as for fireplaces, was developed in the late 19th century. Zsolnay pyrogranite is mostly associated with the tiles that decorate prominent buildings in Budapest to this day, including the Hungarian Parliament, the Matthias Church in Budapest, the Museum of Applied Arts and the Geological Museum.
Pyrogranite can also be used in fireplaces, as the recently renovated Saint Stephen’s Hall’s extravagant 611-piece ceramic fireplace demonstrates. Much of the technological development that made the Zsolnay factory famous is thanks to Vilmos Zsolnay’s tireless effort and dedication. As someone drawn to the arts and especially painting form a young age, he found a true passion in porcelain and ceramics.
With the end of the Austro-Hungarian years, the two world wars and the subsequent imposition of Communist rule in Hungary, the success and recognition of Zsolnay declined. In 1948, the company was nationalized and was soon renamed. ‘Zsolnay’, a reminder of the original founders and owners of the company, was dropped from the name of the factory.
Members of the Zsolnay family were even imprisoned on false charges,
and their property seized.
During the Communist era, the successor of the Zsolnay factory mostly produced tableware. With the Fall of the Berlin Wall, the company was reorganized, and returned to the use of the Zsolnay name. The original designs developed in the 19th century were renewed, and so even today the company’s over 30,000 products are based on the original works of the Zsolnay family. The company now produces mostly luxury vases, home decorations, tableware as well as design pieces for buildings.
On the former estate and factory of the Zsolnay family the Zsolnay Cultural Quarter was created in Pécs in 2010. A total of 15 protected historic buildings and 88 public Zsolnay statues can be found in the scenic parks and promenades of the quarter, which also includes unique exhibitions presenting the Zsolnay heritage.
The 170-year-old legacy of the Zsolnay family continues to enrich Hungarian culture, and art lovers cross the globe. In October this year a new record was set: two Zsolnay pieces were sold at an auction for 28 million HUF each. No Zsolnay pieces have ever been sold for such a high price—one of the earlier record keepers that was purchased for 19 million HUF by the Zsolnay Museum in Pécs was a one-metre tall vase, produced for the 1906 Milan World Fair to demonstrate that despite the difficulties to work with the material, it can be used to make pieces of art.
As a result of the growing popularity of Zsolnay products, their price has doubled recently. A Zsolnay expert, István Törő commented on the record-breaking auction with the following words: ‘We can safely say that today it is one of the most sought-after ceramic brands in the world, a Hungaricum that is respected, loved and collected on all continents.’