Villeroy & Boch, Mettlach

By: Gary Kirschner       
As seen in Antiques & Art Around Florida, Winter/Spring 2006                            

Mettlach is a small village on the Saar River in what is now the far western part of Germany, near both Luxembourg and France. Although the ceramic products made there were produced by the Villeroy and Boch Company (V&B), they have commonly been called Mettlach wares. Apparent­ly, this was done for two reasons: (1) to avoid confusion with the very different products made at the eight V&B factories in other cities, and (2) because the name Mettlach dominates the important incised old tower or castle trademark used by the Mettlach factory.

The golden age of Mettlach lasted from approximately 1880 to 1910. During that time, using guarded secret techniques, the etched, glaz­ed, cameo, and phanolith wares were at the pinnacle of their production. New design lines and an explosion of color were introduced into the production of the Mettlach items. An extensive display at the 1885 Ant­werp World’s Fair propelled Mettlach to the forefront of the ceramics field. Production quantities con­tinued to grow until at its height the Mettlach plant employed about 1,250 people.

About 1909, and certainly by the time of the First World War, business seems to have slackened off con­siderably. Researchers of this subject tend to blame un­favorable economic circumstances and a lack of skilled labor. In 1921, a great fire destroyed molds, production records, and formulas for the production processes and materials, including 30 colored clay slips, 150 under­glaze colors, and 176 colored hard glazes. From 1925 until the early 1930s, some etched and PUG (print under glaze) articles were again being produced at the Mettlach plant. Although the Mettlach factory continued to produce tiles, dishes, plumbing fixtures, and other wares, there was almost a fifty-year lapse before the manufacture of the steins and plaques was revived. While some of the most desirable steins and plaques were reproduced, the processes and materials were obviously different. The quality of these reproduced pieces is admirable; however, they are noticeably different from the original Mettlach chromolith items. The bases of these newly created steins show the years they were made.

During the period that Mettlach produced etched or chromolith steins, there were many manufacturers, including Simon Peter Gerz, Marzi and Remy, Merkelbach and Wick, Reinhold-Merkelbach, J.W. Remy, Albert Jacob Thewalt, Matthias Girmscheid, and Hauber and Reuther (HR), all of whom made similar steins. Without a doubt, however, the quality of these steins is not comparable to that of Mettlach steins; the actual production processes and the resulting steins differed significantly. HR and Marzi Remy generally made the best and most attractive imitations of the Mettlach-style etched steins. It is helpful to note that only Matthias Girmscheid made a stein with a mark that could remotely be confused with a Mettlach trademark. They used a house similar to the old tower, with the word Germany in a banner below it.

In recent years both the Thewalt Company and Villeroy and Boch have been making steins that somewhat resemble the antique Mettlach etched steins. The general style of the Thewalt steins is similar to the original Mettlach steins, both in general shapes as well as in the designs of the handles, bands, and lids. These steins, however, are not nearly of the quality of the original Mettlach steins, and they are clearly designated as being made by Thewalt.

There are some new porcelain steins with lithophanes on the market, marked Mattlack or other perhaps legally motivated misspellings of Mettlach. They do not resemble original Mettlach steins in any way.

Production of Mettlach Wares

The Villeroy and Boch Company produced steins and other wares that were, almost without exception, original both in design and in production technique. The exceptions include some plaques with designs replicating paintings of old masters and a small number of steins that copied antique vessels such as Creussens, Annabergs, and faience.

Though only rarely, V&B steins were sometimes made and marked by Dresden, Luxembourg, or other V&B factories in addition to the one at Mettlach. The majority of V&B steins, of course, were made at the Mettlach factory, and most of the steins and other wares produced there have certain common characteristics. Most Mettlach wares were made from very hard stoneware that was vitrified, making it impervious to water. However, most PUG and hand painted items were earthenware. A pure white porcelain-like glaze was applied to the insides of almost all drinking vessels and punch bowls. The primary exceptions are the steins marked BAVARIA, which are a gray color both inside and out. The same general type of clay forming the bodies of stoneware Mettlach products was also used in the decorations on the etched, relief, and mosaic items. Mold marks are generally not visible on V&B steins, indicating that the seams were very carefully cleaned after the body was formed. Mold marks were also not visible when potters’ wheels were used to form the bodies, as was the case with very early Mettlach steins. A noticeable mold line is often visi­ble on some steins made before 1885 or after 1905. The handles were applied at a late stage in the product­ion process, and it is clear that some bases were also applied.

The earliest steins produced at Mettlach were bas-relief in style, commonly called relief. The earliest decora­tions frequently consisted of green or brown leaves and vines against brown or tan backgrounds. The early relief pieces occasionally were accented with a platinum decoration. These earliest relief steins were produced from the 1840s through the early 1880s when diversification into a variety of other production methods took place.

After about 1880, some of the early relief steins were produced us­ing new, highly refined production techniques invented at Mettlach. The relief wares seem to have been produced in two ways. With the first method it appears that the relief was applied by hand. The other method apparently involved forming the design in a full-bodied mold. After an opaque tan relief material was set into the mold, a colored background stoneware­ slip was painted into the mold, usually light blue, green, brown, gray, or coral red. Single solid-colored relief steins are uncommon; those that exist are usually all gray, brown, or bisque white. The Mettlach relief steins were among the least expensive steins the company pro­duced, and this is reflected in the prices paid for them today.

Cameo and relief wares are often confused with each other. The production process of each seems to be quite similar, except that (1) the cameos do not protrude as far from the body as the relief's, thus calling for closer tolerances, and (2) the material used in the cameo relief­ work is a more translucent, porcelain-like material, allowing for shadings of background colors to show through the thinnest portions of the relief. The resulting products are similar to the gemstone and shell cameos from which they get their name.

Phanolith plaques, together with other objects (but no steins), were produced using the same monolithic molding process as the cameo. However, the materials used, and the tolerances of the process itself, may have been even finer in the phanolith than in the cameo. Phanolith wares were pro­duced for the most part between 1900 and 1908.

The simplest steins to produce were the print under glaze, or PUG steins. A small number of different blank forms were used for PUGs. After the blank body was form­ed and fired, a transfer print (decal) was applied. A low temperature firing removed the oil that was present in the decoration. A final glaze was then applied. After the final firing, the transfer scene had become an integral part of the product.

Also borrowed from another factory were the methods used to create Rookwood wares. In 1880, American craftsmen at the famous Rookwood factory in Cincinnati, Ohio, produced a rich, dark brown background glazed ware that the V&B craftsmen began to imitate. These Mettlach wares were decorated using hand painting, as well as atomizers spraying decorative shadings which had been invented by Rookwood. This extra attention accounted for the fact that the Mettlach Rookwood wares originally sold for more than similar etched items.

In their constant quest to revive the beauty and quali­ty of Renaissance and Baroque ceramics, the V&B crafts­men worked to copy faience steins of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Faience steins had been a European tin-glazed product meant to simulate the Oriental porcelains that were so popular and prohibitively expensive. The decorations on the Mett­lach faience steins were primarily hand painted. One of the most outstanding characteristics of these steins, especially the 1.0 liter versions, is the use of fan­cy and beautiful pewter mountings, i.e., the lids and footrings. This pewter work greatly enhances the authen­tic appearance of these faience steins.

Another type of ware that also involved hand painting was the Mett­lach revival of the Delft-type decorations. Although the technique was virtually identical to that used in the faience replicas, the use of blue and white designs and decorative devices typical of the famous anti­que Delft wares makes them easily distinguishable from the faience replicas.

When the name Mettlach is recognized, it is mostly associated with the beautiful chromolith steins. It was chromolith steins that brought to the Villeroy and Boch Mettlach factory the acclaim and awards which boosted it into the category of an extraordinary manufac­turer. Even though by most accounts these products are considered mass produced, they are recognized as be­ing among the finest quality items of their type. Chromolith, or colored stone, was the name prefer­red by V&B, but the simpler term etched has become universal in referring to these wares. Actually, the chromolith wares were not etched; rather, the design was made by some form of a mold or press­ed process, the exact nature of which is unknown.

The V&B literature used to promote the sale of chromolith products would tend to suggest that col­ored clays were laid into the body of the wares in a pro­cess similar to cloisonné. In fact, prior to 1880, it is known from surviving Mettlach records that some extraordinarily beautiful chromolith wares were made for royal and noble houses. However, these were ac­complished in such a labor-intensive process that it would have been impossible to produce or sell any quantities. These items could well have been produced using the inlaid process, sometimes called true chromolith. The acclaim for these items was so extraordinary that the V&B craftsmen had set themselves to the task of inventing a more reasonable way of achiev­ing similar results. In 1880, it is known that they did develop such a process and began the widespread marketing of their highly acclaimed etched wares.

There are four types of designs that have sometimes been considered less desirable than other etched stein designs and they are commonly known only by the following designations. The art nouveau wares are etched with the bold sinuous designs which became so popular at the beginning of the twentieth century. The mosaic wares generally followed the relief era and preceded the etched era. Although some mosaic pieces contain etched sections, for the most part they were totally decorated with colored glazes on surfaces actually quite complex, compared to the usual etched pieces. The glazed wares are similar to mosaics but have no protrusions from the surface. The final im­portant sub-category of etched steins is tapestry steins. These steins generally have an etched portrait­-like section on the front of the stein with a large gray undecorated, or sparsely decorated, area on the sides and back.

Mettlach Market Values

Mettlach beer steins and other wares have long been a desirable collectible in the United States, Germany, and many other countries. Many beer steins from other companies were sold in the United States when first produced to create the market. The acclaimed production of the Villeroy & Boch Company dates to the late 1800s and early 1900s. It was in the late 1950s that antique importers in the United States brought in large quantities of Villeroy & Boch’s Mettlach beer steins. The addition of the Mettlach imports gave collectors a significant selection from which they could build collections.

While most collectors ignored price appreciation or investment value prior to 1970, there came a time when appreciation could not be ignored. During the 1960s and early 1970s, Mettlach wares proved to be a very good investment, both in comparison to other antiques and to other investment possibilities. Their performance in the mid to late 1970s was not as strong; some other antiques increased in value far more rapidly. In the early 1980s, with the deflation of many of those antique values, Mettlach steins and other Mettlach wares remained steady and thus proved to be relatively strong, if unspectacular, performers. During the mid 1980s, some Mettlach steins decreased in value while others increased. Other Mettlach wares mostly remained steady or increased in value.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, most Mettlach steins increased in value, or remained steady. Most other wares also experienced increases or steady prices. The mid 1990s saw only minor changes in Mettlach prices. Significant changes occurred in the late 1990s and the first few years of the twenty-first century. While a small percentage of Mettlach items remained at steady prices or increased slightly, most decreased in value, in many cases by significant percentages.

What is the current trend in Mettlach stein prices? That is a frequently asked question, and while it is easy to review the change in prices from 1958 to 2005, it is difficult to predict future performance. The performance of Mettlach steins over the past ten years would seem to indicate that Mettlach prices are not immune to decreases. While the entire antique market was certainly at least as weak as Mettlach prices, this is of little consolation to Mettlach collectors. As for the future, it is the collectors who will create the demands and prices for Mettlach wares; it will be the supply versus demand in the future that will determine price trends.

Many factors contribute to the value of a specific Mettlach stein. The quality of the design, subject matter, workmanship, and condition are some of the more obvious factors. Unlike some assets which have alternative productive uses, steins and other Mettlach items have a value only as something beautiful to collect or to accumulate for enjoyment or speculation. For this reason, the value of any Mettlach item is simply what one person will pay another in order to own it; therefore, it is the collectors and not the dealers who determine the prices.

Values listed in the recently released book, The Mettlach Book, Fourth Edition, are the retail prices a collector can expect to pay when items are in good condition and are being sold by a knowledgeable seller. From time to time, steins or other Mettlach items may be sold by collectors, dealers, or auction houses at substantially higher or lower prices than are shown in the book. Individual sales at noticeably different prices would not change the value of a Mettlach item. A consistent trend of different prices, however, would tend to alter the retail price, provided that the transactions were by knowledgeable individuals acting without any unusual influences, such as a desire to quickly liquidate their assets.

The wholesale price of a Mettlach stein can vary a great deal, depending upon the item or items involved, as well as the needs of the buyer. The more desirable steins will tend to have higher wholesale values (relative to their retail prices) than the less desirable steins. While most dealers like to have margins of 40% to 50%, it is realistic to expect to sell a nice quality collection of Mettlach steins to a dealer for about 70% of the current retail value. A very high-quality collection could receive an even higher percentage because many of these pieces may be quickly placed in waiting collections.

The Mettlach Book, Fourth Edition

by Gary Kirsner

The most thorough book ever written covering the production of Mettlach steins & other wares. A hardcover book of 472 pages, 8½" x 11", with 16 pages in color. Over 3000 items illustrated (180 in color). There are over 4200 items described and priced (nearly 50% are steins). 100% more items illustrated & 1200 more items listed than the Third Edition! History of the factory, production facts, the marks and much more.

$59.00 (plus $6.00 shipping). Total $65.00. (Florida residents please add 6% sales tax.)

Gary Kirsner
PO Box 8807
Coral Springs, FL 33075
www.garykirsnerauctions.com


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