The factory was founded in 1853 by Zsolnay Miklós in the city of Pécs as Zsolnay Kéménycserép Manufaktúra. At that time, it employed 8 to 10 workers, and manufactured stoneware, water pipes and building ceramics for the local market. A year after its founding, Miklós’ elder son Ignác took it over. Eventually, the factory ran into a problem, the first of many to come.
Vilmos, the younger son, was smart, spoke many languages, and had excellent business sense. He took over the factory and saved it from bankruptcy in 1865. In 1868, it was registered as Első Pécsi Czement, Chamotte és Tűzbiztos Agyagáruk Gyára – First Pécs Factory of Cement, Chamotte (a fired clay used in ceramics), and Fire-Safe Clay Goods.
He was receptive to technical inventions. He himself developed many techniques to improve his company’s products. Soon, Zsolnay ceramics became well known and won awards at many exhibitions.
Besides foreign ceramic masters, many of his family members took part in the growth of the factory: his son, Miklós, and daughters, Teréz and Júlia, and even his grandchildren. (After Vilmos’ death in 1900, Miklós became the president of the company until his death in 1922.) They all worked together, constantly experimenting to improve the quality of the products, and building good relations with their customers. Miklós ran the company, Teréz and Júlia were designers. Teréz used Hungarian traditional motifs, while Júlia’s motifs came from the East – Japan, and China.
They manufactured ceramics from the beginning. In the meantime, they developed a special ornamental ceramic called “pyrogranite”. This ceramic fired at a high temperature, was very durable, frost and fire resistant, and was therefore perfect for fireplaces, decorative outdoor ceramics, and for roof tiles; it could also be colored.
Many architects used Zsolnay tiles: Ybl Miklós, Lechner Ödön, Steindl Imre and others. Steindl Imre designed the Hungarian Parliament where the pyrogranite was used for the first time. Walking through the streets of Budapest, one can admire the colorful roof of the Museum of Applied Art, Gellért Baths, ELTE University, Budapest Technical University, the Great Market Hall, and many other buildings, as well as many hotels. Look at the Mátyás (Matthias) Church in Buda! Not only the roof and the façade, but also the chandeliers found inside the church were made at the Zsolnay factory. The tiles were also used in many cities in the country, for example in Kecskemét and Pécs.
The greatest success and world recognition came as a result of the introduction, in 1893, of the enamel glaze technique made with eosin (derived from the Greek word eos – flush of dawn.) The first color used was red iridescence; later on, blue, green and purple were used.
Eosin is used over ceramics and it gives out the beauty of a porcelain, but over ceramics the colors are richer than the painted porcelain, and can be mistaken for glass or metal decorations. This technique is still used in our time. It was introduced to the world in 1896 at the National Millennial Exhibit where it was an enormous success. The king awarded Vilmos the Order of Franz Joseph, and the city of Pécs bestowed on him the title of “honorary citizen”.
Many artists favored eosin – Apáti Sándor, Mack Lajos and Rippl-Rónai József. But not all went smoothly for the Zsolnay factory. During WW I, they produced electronic insulators for military use. After the war, the loss of their market, Serbian occupation, difficulty in obtaining raw material, and the depression caused the company’s fortunes to decline. To survive, they switched to creating porcelain tableware. The company just started to recover, when WW II came, and the Budapest production site was bombed.
In 1948, the factory was nationalized, and stopped making eosin pieces. Even the name Zsolnay was dropped and it became the “Pécs Porcelain Factory”. Up till that time, it was owned by the Zsolnay family. After that, they manufactured insulations, industrial products and some tableware. Only in the 1950’s were they able to make decorative pieces and pyrogranite tiles again.
After 1958, they started to manufacture decorative porcelain pieces. Many recently graduated ceramic artists started more modern designs, while following the classic styles. There is another important thing about the Zsolnay factory: they always renewed the various styles according to the period, yet still remained true to their tradition.
In 1995, the factory was privatized, and later split into three: the Zsolnay Porcelángyár Rt., the Zsolnay Manufactura Rt., and the Zsolnay Örökség Kht.
Over time, the Zsolnay factory was widely recognized. The pyrogranite was introduced at the World Fair in Vienna in 1873, and it was an enormous success, receiving many orders from all around the world. In 1878, at the Paris World Fair, it received the Grand Prix. The Secessionist collection was a great success in 1900 at the World Fair in Paris.
In the early 2000’s, with fashion designer Zoób Kati, a porcelain and eosin jewelry collection emerged, also with success.
Zsolnay masterpieces are well known around the world. Their vases, decorative pieces, and statues reached many countries – in Europe: Austria, Germany, Italy, and France; overseas, they became known in the U.S., Australia; and in the East, in Japan, China, South Korea, Iran and Iraq. Many of the surviving earlier pieces are in museums and in private collections.
The earlier pieces were not marked; only after 1878 did they add a five-tower illustration – representing the five churches of Pécs – and the words “Zsolnay” and “Pécs”. In some cases, they also included numbers connected to the date the piece was manufactured.
Zsolnay Porcelain and Ceramics made the Hungaricum Collection in 2014, in the Industrial and Technological category.
If you are lucky enough to be in possession of a Zsolnay ceramic or porcelain, be proud, and enjoy! You are holding a piece of Hungarian history!
Karolina Tima Szabo is a retired Systems Analyst of the Connecticut Post newspaper and Webmaster of Magyar News Online. She is the proud grandmother of two.