Timeless beauty — the essence of celadon
The art of making celadon originated in China more than 2000 years ago and was introduced to this region during the Sukhothai period, only later coming to the Kingdom of Lanna. This was a prosperous time for trade in the region. The main production of celadon wares in then Siam was around Sawankalok in present-day Sukhothai Province, where pottery and kilns approximately 500 years old have been found. In Lanna, kilns creating celadon wares were in San Kamphaeng District.
Even though this ceramic tradition originated from China, production there has since been adapted and completely industrialized,” said Anusit “Pond” Manityakul, the marketing manager of Siam Celadon. “Today it is the original techniques and handmade aspects of these wares that are gaining popularity among customers in the Chinese market. Unlike present-day Chinese celadon, ours is still handmade. Now the Chinese are coming to buy from Thailand because they see the value of craftmanship.”
“Siam Celadon was established more than 40 years ago to conserve local knowledge of celadon production techniques. I personally grew up with these products in the form of cups and bowels. At first, I felt that they were heavy but having used them over the years I feel they are very durable,” he said.
Pond has long had a connection with the craft. Even though he graduated in engineering at Chiang Mai University and worked in that field for a period, in the end he returned to develop the family business.
“I have been helping Siam Celadon for nearly 10 years, looking after the international marketing side of the business. Siam Celadon was established in 1976 by Nid and Penpunn Wangwiwat, who saw that San Kamphaeng was an area of small industries and handicrafts and had a lot of crafts people, especially women. There used to be many small shops selling handmade silk fabrics, umbrellas and carpentry work. At the very beginning of Siam Celadon, we chose to work with local artisans because they already had the techniques and we had faith in their skills that had been passed-on down the centuries. As for raw materials, we use the black clays found in local rice fields around Chiang Mai as they contain iron minerals that render a green color in firing, and we use natural glazes made from local wood ash.”
Conserving local wisdom
Celadon wares have a signature green color with a crackled glazed created from wood ash and fired to a high temperature of 1260 -1300 degrees Celsius. Though it is not produced in high volume, celadon is an important export product of Chiang Mai. Each piece is intricate and meticulously made, and if it does not have the signature green finish or crackled glaze, it is not celadon. All other colors are considered ordinary ceramics.
The wood once used to make the ash is a local wood called Hok Fah, but the tree is now listed as endangered, so we now use ash from other woods sourced from local farms and households. The ash is mixed with water and then fermented. Once appropriate density and ph. levels are reached, it is ready to be used as a glaze. This technique, a completely natural process, is part of the traditional knowledge that has passed down the generations. San Kamphaeng ceramics have Geographical Indication (GI) status as products of Chiang Mai because of the local resources of the necessary black clay.
“The difference in ceramics of Chiang Mai and Lampang is noticeable. Chiang Mai has black clay, while Lampang has white clay that cannot be used to make celadon. We currently source our black clay from Mae Taeng District, which has high levels of iron. When fired in the kiln, a reduction process occurs creating the green finish. It is science and art combined,” said Pond.
Outstanding contemporary celadon
Since Pond joined the management team, he has steered the product range in a more modern direction. Recently Siam Celadon collaborated with designer Pibool Amornjiraporn from Plural Designs Studio with the aim of bringing celadon to a more modern audience. As a result, two very different products were created and displayed at Chiang Mai design week 2019.
The first, “Bamboo Wall”, is a wall surface fixture that imitates natural bamboo shapes and forms, the various shades of celadon creating a true imitation of nature.
The second is a tea set called “Double Wall” because of the double wall design of the tea pot and teacups that are minimal in shape and form, the teacups having no handles in the modern style. This tea set was inspired by traditional sticky rice containers, which are baskets woven with a double wall to help maintain the temperature of its contents. A similar concept is used in the Air teacup, which is designed with an air pocket between cup walls, allowing the user to hold the cup with ease and the contents to remain hot for a longer period. The Double Wall product range received an outstanding design award from Demark Awards 2020.
“Our opportunity to work with new age designers has modernized our product range while maintaining traditional celadon techniques and production processes inherited from the time of the Lanna kingdom. One item that I am very proud to show you is this celadon thermos, which has a tea strainer at the top; it is made with the double wall technique and has the shape and form of green bamboo, which is the same green as our celadon.”
Local wisdom is an inheritance
The Classic Lanna style for which Siam Celadon is best known has intricate patterns of local flora and fauna and even animals such as elephants. While Siam Celadon’s traditional customers expect this style of work, product designs must adapt as people and lifestyles change. Pond said products must be user friendly for smaller households and pointed out that current Siam Celadon dinner sets now offer plates in a range of sizes from small to very large.
“The future of celadon is most important to us. Though shapes and forms change, we maintain our knowledge of the celadon manufacturing process with the hope that young people will learn of it and identify it as an integral part of Chiang Mai’s heritage of handicrafts and art. These days, the hustle and bustle of the San Kamphaeng area has faded, and the Hang Dong area is now better known for handicrafts; but I grew up with these handicrafts and want to see them conserved. To maintain the identity of Chiang Mai, we must make the younger generation more aware of the importance of handicrafts and help conserve our heritage of local wisdom,” said Pond.
Apart from Siam Celadon’s showroom in San Kamphaeng, products are on show in Chiang Mai at the Raming Tea House, which is a renovated 100-year-old house once owned by Chinese diplomats. Siam Celadon ceramics’ retail shop is at the front, while at back a lovely tea house overlooks a lush courtyard, where simple Thai dishes, desserts and other refreshments are served in beautiful celadon table wares.