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K. Kris Hirst

Turning Lead into Gold: the Alchemy of Lustreware

By November 30, 2012

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The decorative ceramic style known as lustreware is a shiny metallic visual effect that flickers back and forth when light is played on it.

Monochrome Lustreware Cup - 10th Century Iraq
Monochrome Lustreware Cup - 10th Century Iraq. Trinitat Pradell, from the collections of the British Museum

Lustreware was invented by a small guild of Islamic ceramicists living in the Iraqi towns of Baghdad and Basra in the 8th century AD. They used copper, silver, and lead to make the gold lights flicker on the pot surface.

The history of lustreware's invention is a fascinating one of industrial espionage, nano-sized chemistry, and innovation. The recipes were mind-bogglingly complex, involving two stages of kiln firing, as well as the inclusion of copper, silver, and lead in a specific combination of paints and glazes.

In a recent set of papers, researcher Trinitat Pradell and several of her colleagues investigated the science behind the alchemy of lustreware. They discovered that the production of the shiny metallic gold of the Islamic potters was the result of a happy accident coupled with centuries of experimentation of alchemists truly turning lead into gold.


December 3, 2012 at 10:36 pm
(1) TRKemp says:

This is an interesting process since I am researching metal smiths of Africa and the techniques used….. this is one I have not seen. Thank you for sharing the informationI I will be looking to see if the skill to use this technique pops up to the west.

December 4, 2012 at 8:13 am
(2) Rick Alvey says:

What is the relationship of the ancient lusterware to the lusterwares, produced often on porcelains, which were manufactured in England and the United States from the 1830′s to the 1850′s (and maybe later). I have seen pink, blue, and green lusterwares from this period and once owned a white bowl with copper luster decorations?

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