Cobalt Blue Ceramic of Japan - CBC - Late 20th century Asian


A Guide for Collectors and Sellers

by Carrie Lambert

What CBC Is

In Japan, just prior to the turn of the 20th century, there were three types of clay in use: low-temperature earthenware, high-temperature stoneware (a topic for another article), and high-temperature porcelain. Each type of clay was found within a specific geographic, and geological, location of Japan often separated by hundreds of miles, mountains, and even ocean. Each type of clay evolved in a distinct style [1].

Figure 1. Late 20th Century Mass Produced Kutani


High-temperature porcelain evolved in several locations one of which was in the vicinity of the village of Kutani. Hence the name and from whose roots spring the Cobalt Blue Ceramics, henceforth known as CBC.

Figure 2. Late 20th Century Mass-Produced Satsuma


Low-temperature earthenware evolved as Satsuma which got its name from the Satsuma Domain on Kyushu Island.

At the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, Japan saw war and industrial and technological revolutions that shrank miles and mixed clay and styles. By the 1980s we were seeing a lower temperature blue-gray white clay I’ll call (for the lack of a better word) semi-porcelain. A higher temperature and therefore more durable, cream white semi-earthenware (again for lack of a better word) was also developed.

Figure 3. Kutani Style Ginger Jar With Satsuma Back Stamp


We were finding Cobalt Blue Ceramics in the Kutani style clearly marked Satsuma:

Figure 4. Satsuma Style Vase With Generic Kutani Mark


and Satsuma style pieces bearing generic Kutani back stamps. This mark, 九, reads “Ku” or the number 9. This mark, 谷, reads “tani” or valley. Together, 九谷, they read “Kutani” or The Nine Valleys.

Figure 5. Late 20th Century Bijutsu Toki


It seems that Bijutsu Toki couldn’t decide which type of ceramics to manufacture, so it produced both.

Figure 6. Two Tea Sets By Fuji Quality China


Another company, Fuji Quality China, also produced both styles:

Figure 7. Céramique Noire Vases


Fuji Quality China not only produced both styles but also manufactured a "hybrid" as seen in these pieces of "Céramique Noire," Black Ceramics, from this same time period. Note the difference in the back stamps.

On his Kutani website, Georges Bouvier explains, “This style is quite different from the old underglaze blue (sometsuke) developed originally in China and then in Imari and Kutani ceramics from early 19 century. It has a really more deep blue color. This so called cobalt blue color is coming from the addition of cobalt carbonate or cobalt oxide to the glaze. It has been produced by almost all ceramic manufacturers in Japan. There is no way to differentiate them except by the commercial mark used.”

"The peak/fashion period seems to be in the early 1980’s." according to Bouvier. He goes on to say, “We can find almost any kind of pieces with nice colorful decoration, often with gold.”

During the latter part of the 20th century, the metallic accents on CBC were exclusively in gold and silver as the price of platinum was prohibitive. In 1971, the Nixon administration eliminated the gold standard in favor of a dollar flat rate no longer backed by gold. In 1971, gold was at $41.25 per ounce. By 1975 gold was at $164.49 [2] and hitting an all-time high, at least for the present, of $1,917.90 on August 23, 2011 [3]. Platinum was at $121 per ounce in 1971 [4]. Although the price of platinum has continued to climb, it has been at nowhere the escalation rate of gold. On January 2, 2018, gold closed $1,312.05 and platinum closed at $936.00 [5]. Any pieces with platinum embellishments are modern examples as gold and platinum have recently become comparably priced in ceramic manufacture. Because silver tarnishes, older silver areas will appear gray.

Figure 8. Examples of the Themes


These CBC pieces come in at least seven distinct themes with numerous patterns in each of the themes; “Carriage”, “Pheasant”, “Peafowl”, “Flower Cart”, “Cranes”, “Flowers”, and “Poultry”.

What CBC Is Not

Figure 9. Meet the Color Cousins of Cobalt Blue Ceramics


Although the title specifies Cobalt Blue Ceramics, these wares are not only in cobalt blue. They were also produced in dark brown, black and the occasional red, dark green, or turquoise. To confuse things further, cream or beige-white colored wares were also being produced with a "crazed" clear glaze in Satsuma style.

Some sellers/owners uninformed or otherwise may represent these pieces as "Antique." They are not. The Tariff Act of 1930 defined an antique as "works of art (except rugs and carpets made after the year 1700), collections in illustration of the progress of the arts, works in bronze, marble, terra cotta, parian, (a type of bisque porcelain or fine-textured white marble) pottery or porcelain, artistic antiquities and objects of ornamental character or educational value which shall have been produced prior to the year 1830." In other words, at least 100 years old. These pieces are, at best, thirty-five to sixty-five years old. The first fireable screen printed decal was produced in 1936 [6]. It proved so easy to use that it gained popularity almost overnight. But not in the manufacture of ceramics. It was the glassware industry that first used this type of decoration. According to Jon Simmons, it was in the early 1960s that this type of decoration was first used in ceramic wares [7]. So, not antique; not yet.

Recently, I’ve come across two separate, unrelated instances of eBay listings with claims of purchase in the early 1950s, one in Washington (state) and the other in Michigan. Both instances were of US Servicemen, Air Force and Navy, stationed in Japan during the Korean War, 1951-1953, and purchasing wares at the base commissary. Unfortunately, there are no documents to support these claims so it must be considered family oral tradition until it can be proven. However, it must now be considered a possibility that these pieces were being manufactured as early as 1951.

Some people think that the artwork is "Hand Painted." It is not. It is a printed, water-slide, ceramic, fired-on decal. Here is the web address for a video which shows how the decals are printed and applied:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dNIBvEFmQQg

Some decals were printed by the thousands and sold to the ceramic manufacturers all over the Middle and the Far East and Asia. These editions were limited only by the screens’ usable life. In a phone conversation between myself and Jon Simmons, instructor/lecturer at Blessing Simmons Co., Inc., who sold decals during the 1970s, other decals were special orders placed by the ceramic manufacturers and not available to the general public. In that situation, the print edition was limited by the number of decals, or the number of sheets of decals, that were ordered [8]. So rather than “Hand Painted”, the correct phrase is "Hand Decorated."

Figure 10. An Example of a Sheet of Decals (A Carriage Pattern)


The decals from this period were printed before the advent of computers. The printing was mechanized no doubt about it, but there were people making the screens, loading and unloading presses and kilns and applying the decals. These decals are mini general edition serigraph prints. As we see in the video, for every color seen in the final product, a separate screen has to be made. So, the more colors in a design, the more screens are required, the more labor-intensive, and the higher the cost to produce. Here are examples of the raw ceramic decals. They are printed in sheet form. The yellow film burns off in the kiln firing. The light green turns to white and the black lines turn to metallic gold. This type of metallic outlining is called "cloisonné style"; that is, “in the style of cloisonné”. This is not true cloisonné.

Most of these wares were bought as glaze-fired, but undecorated blanks, just like the mugs in the YouTube video. Usually, the decals were hand applied by female pieceworkers; housewives, mothers with small children who could work from home and apply decals, band-aids, discipline, and treats as required. Applying the decals sounds, and looks, easy on the video. And it is, as long as you are working with straight or flat surfaces. Try gluing a flat piece of paper to the side of a softball! A point not mentioned in the video is that the glazed blanks have to be scrupulously clean and free of grease. When working with gold embellished decals, any gold applied to an area on the ceramics that has an oily fingerprint will come out black from the final firing. This means the area where the decal will be placed has to be swabbed with isopropyl alcohol before applying the decal. It isn’t very pleasant to breathe in the fumes! It also means that you have to wear rubber gloves. Try separating the decal from the release paper wearing rubber gloves.

While a ceramic student working on an independent study project for an advanced ceramic studio course, I had the experience of working with gold decals so I have first-hand experience with the problems involved. Later on, as a production potter, I used liquid gold and liquid platinum to decorate one of my Christmas tree ornament lines. Therefore I am familiar with the idiosyncrasies of these materials.

Mass-produced ceramics together with other cottage crafts and emerging industries helped Japan recover from WWII. Income from this type of piecework helped to raise the standard of living for the decorators’ families. Although exploited as cheap labor, which has happened worldwide and continues to happen in Third World countries, it was a positive influence on how the role of women in Japanese society was perceived. They are the unsung crafts-persons of the Middle and the Far East. I have great respect for the people who did, and still do to some extent, this tedious, boring piece work.

If the back/bottom is unmarked, do not assume that the Country of Origin is Japan just because you have seen other pieces with the exact design with Made in Japan as a paste-on-label or a fired-on stamp. CBC was not only produced in Japan. I own pieces of CBC with labels/stamps Made in China, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Mexico, Taiwan, and Turkey, as well as Japan. Likewise, do not assume that it is “Kutani” just because you’ve seen the same design elsewhere marked “Kutani.” It is not good to assume anything when it comes to modern ceramics! If you can not support claims of origin or manufacturer, it is best to describe the piece as "Asian style" or “Japanese style”, and "Kutani style" instead of Kutani.

To offer proof for this admonition, I will be presenting eight cases comparing similar pieces of Japanese CBC to each example of pieces from the countries of China, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Mexico, Taiwan, and Turkey.

China:

Figure 11. Comparing a Japanese Dish and a Chinese Vase


Presenting a Japanese Kutani fan dish and Chinese bud vase. Please note the bamboo on the Chinese piece. It has been my experience to only find bamboo on the patterns in the “Pheasant Theme” that are unmarked or carry labels Made In China or Made In Taiwan. I have yet to see one with bamboo and a Japanese mark or label.

France:

Figure 12. Comparing a Japanese Trinket Jar and a French Plate


Here is the comparison of a Japanese Kutani covered trinket jar and a French plate.

At first glance, this French plate looks like Japanese Kutani, even though it doesn’t say so anywhere on the piece. The back stamp looks like Asian characters. It still could be Japanese; until you find a Chinese reader who tells you that this is Chinese and not Japanese. So Japanese Kutani is ruled out as a manufacturer. Also eliminated is the possibility of Japan being the country of origin. Then you get the reading and you are told that the plate was made in France. The back stamp on this French plate reads Bayeux [France] 巴約 , Glass Factory 玻璃廠 , Pure 純 , Enamel Painting 彩繪 [9].

Because this back stamp is written in Hanzi, Chinese characters, it is possible that this plate was meant to go to a Chinese market. Notice the thick application of gold on the French plate. Bayeux was noted for its liberal use of liquid gold on its products.

Germany:

Figure 13. Comparing a Japanese Vase and a German Vase


Meito, 明陶 is the manufacturer of this Japanese vase [10]. Note the color, hue, of the large leaves. The corresponding German vase, although a different pattern from the Japanese vase, still falls under the category of the “flowers only” theme. The bottom mark was stamped on the German piece resulting in a blurred marking. Photographs were unable to capture a readable image. However, it is discernable to the naked eye. It reads, Echt Cobalt Bareuther Waldsassen Handarbeit Bavaria Germany. Note here also, the color of the large chrysanthemum leaves. Because the greens are so close to each other, I would date both of these vases as the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s. This hue of green, called “sage” in the decorating world, has a blue-gray look to it and was popular during that time period.

Greece:

Figure 14. Comparing a Japanese Ginger Jar and a Greek Vase


The Japanese Ginger/Temple Jar is by Yamahiro Toen, 山弘陶苑, which means “Yamahiro Pottery Studio” [11]. The Yamahiro Manufacturing Co is still doing business today in Seto City, Aichi, Japan.

This pattern is a fairly common one in the “Peafowl Theme”. Please note the gray area on the Japanese jar. This “gray” is actually tarnished silver. The Greek version has substituted gold.

Italy:

Figure 15. Comparing a Japanese Dish and an Italian Vase


This is a Japanese fan dish in a pattern in the Pheasant theme and its counterpart vase made in Italy. At first glance, the designs are exactly the same. On closer inspection, one can see subtle differences. Please notice the red arrows. They point to differences in coloration of the leaves and the male’s crest. This shows that these two decals were not printed on the same set of silkscreens.

Figure 16. Pheasant Decal


I know for a fact that the transfer on the Japanese fan dish was printed in Japan. I own a sheet of this pattern and it has printed on it, “Made In Japan”. As explained previously in this article in the section concerning the themes/decals, the over-glaze pigments are different colors after they are fired.

Mexico:

Figure 17. Comparing a Japanese Vase and a Mexican Vase


Moving on alphabetically, we come to Mexico. The bottom mark on the Japanese vase reads “Bijutsu Toki” 美術陶器 which is the name of the producer and means Art Pottery.

Please note the tail feathers of the front crane on both vases. Although the vases are different heights; that is the Japanese vase is 16 cm, and the Mexican vase is 23.4 cm, the decal images are the same size. These two decals were not printed with the same silk-screens. Obviously, the two green hues are different which could be due to different batch runs but also notice that the Japanese crane has a second and third color in the tail feathers; yellow and brown. While the Mexican design uses two intensities of the same green while incorporating the ground color glaze, cobalt blue, into the design. That means one screen, and therefore one step was eliminated from the printing process. If you study the enlargements of the two decals, you will see other difference, as well. These two decals were not printed from the same set of screens.

Taiwan:

Figure 18. Comparing a Japanese Dish and a Taiwanese Coaster


Continuing, I present a Japanese pin/butter pat dish 9 cm in diameter. I compare it with a Taiwanese coaster, one of a set of four, with a diameter of 8.9 cm. The back marking of the Japanese example reads “Kaku fuku” 描福 or “Luck in a square”. This is a common mark on generic Japanese Kutani pieces. The label on the Taiwanese example reads “Interpur”, the name of a multinational exporter and says, “Made in Taiwan”.

This Peafowl pattern is a common one found on CBC wares. At first glance, the decals seem to match exactly. But on closer examination, they are very different, indeed! Although the general outline is a fairly accurate match, the colors are completely different. A good example is the green of the peony leaves. In the Japanese piece, the leaves are shaded with a yellow-gold color. Notice the flat coloration of the green leaves of the Taiwanese example. Where the Japanese piece is silver, although tarnished and appearing gray, on the tree limbs, tree trunk, and flight feathers, the Taiwanese piece shows the color to be white. There are differences in the colors of the peonies as well. How many other differences can you spot?

Turkey:

Figure 19. Comparing a Japanese Vase and a Turkish Covered Jar


Now it is Turkey’s turn. I am comparing a Japanese bud vase produced by Maruni 丸二 with a Turkish covered jar manufactured by “Groovy’s Porcelain”. Again, a variation on a fairly common Peafowl pattern on both pieces.

In the Japanese vase the flight feathers, tree trunk. and branches are tarnished silver, while, as in the case of the Taiwanese CBC piece, the same areas are white on the Turkish covered jar; that is, at “a” and “b” of the purple arrows. There are fewer colors in the plumage of the Turkish Peacock; that is, “c” and “d“. The yellow peony stamens and pistil are missing in the Turkish version as seen at “e“. The Japanese vase has two-toned peony leaves, while the green of the peony leaves on the Turkish jar is a flat muted green. This can be seen at “f“. Every time you leave out a color, you eliminate a screen from the printing process. Fewer screens mean less ink, less labor, and more profit.

I am on a continual search for examples of CBC pieces manufactured in other countries, so this section may never be finished.

In summary, when buying or listing for sale CBC items, I hope you will remember these guidelines:

1. They are not always dark cobalt blue. They may be dark brown or black. In direct sunlight, look at the bottom of the piece, or the back in the case of plates. The color will declare itself.
2. They are not antique; not yet.
3. They are not “hand painted“. They are “hand decorated”.
4. If the bottom or back is unmarked & unlabeled, describe the piece as “Asian style”.
5. If the bottom or back of the piece has the Country of Origin written, stamped, or labeled on it, you can describe it as such.
6. If the markings are in characters other than Romanesque, do not guess. Get a reading from someone who knows the language.
7. If it is Japanese, do not assume that it is Kutani unless it is marked in English or the Japanese characters, 九谷

If you would like more information, please see: https://www.kutani.org/.
Monsieur Bouvier has a dedicated section on cobalt blue ceramics with many photos. Most of those pieces are from my own collection. For additional information see: http://modernjapanesepotterymarks.blogspot.com/

Acknowledgements:

Special thanks go out to the following people who without their expertise, help, encouragement, and time, this article would not have been possible: Georges Bouvier, Jan-Erik Nilsson, Dawn Reuter, Sue Lynn Takagi, John Wocher, and all of the Japanese readers that I have met on this journey.

Photo credits: All of the photographs were taken by the author and are of pieces from the author’s private collection.

Disclaimer: This article was created to dispel misinformation surrounding mass-produced ceramics of the late 20th century in general and Japanese cobalt blue ceramics specifically. It is not meant to be a means of determining authenticity or value. I am still learning. Occasionally, I will make a mistake. When that happens, I correct the error immediately upon discovery. Additionally, I will update as new information becomes available.

Carrie Lambert

Footnotes:


[9The Chinese (Hanzi) reading compliments of Simon Ng, Dragon/Moderator, Gotheborg Discussion Board http://www.gotheborg.com/ and Brigit Steinbach, also of the Gotheborg Discussion Board

[10The Japanese reading is by John Wocher, Dragon/Moderator, http://www.gotheborg.com/

[11156. Mark: Yamahiro Toen, “Yama hiro” - mountain-wide, and “toen” = pottery garden / studio. Mark of Yamahiro Manufacturing Co. Seto City, Aichi, Japan. Last quarter 20th century. http://www.gotheborg.com/