The wealth of Saint-Yrieix: Kaolin

Kaolin, the clay crucial to the production of porcelain, is how the town of Saint-Yrieix made its wealth. Learn about this white gold, from its discovery and extraction to its use in the local area, especially in the Marcognac quarries, which are now classed as Monuments Historiques.

The city of Saint-Yrieix-la-Perche prospered in the 18th and 19th centuries thanks to a raw material found in the ground: kaolin, which is essential for the production of genuine porcelain. The clay, which has been used for more than 2,000 years in China and since the start of the 18th century in Germany, was discovered for the first time in France in 1768 by the surgeon Jean-Baptiste Darnet, in Saint-Yrieix-la-Perche.

Kaolin’s properties mean that porcelain can be fired at over 1,200°C, allowing for optimal hardness without affecting its white colour. In light of kaolin’s exceptional advantages, King Louis XV bought the first vein to fuel the royal manufacturer in Sèvres. In Limoges, the first porcelain factory opened in 1771, soon followed by many others, in both Limoges and Saint-Yrieix. The exploitation of kaolin marked the beginning of the porcelain industry in Limoges and created an unprecedented economic and social dynamic in this rural area.

A craze developed and led to dozens of quarries opening near Saint-Yrieix. The most productive was the quarry in Marcognac, located around 5 km from the city centre. Today, the site is protected and classified as a Historic Monument. It is accessible to visitors.

During its 200 years of existence, from 1786 to 1986, the Marcognac quarry produced several thousand tons of kaolin. After being extracted with a pickaxe, the kaolin was sorted, cleaned and dried before being taken to the mills, where it was crushed. Working conditions were tough and the dust caused serious illnesses, such as tuberculosis and silicosis.

Today, the Seynie, founded in 1774 in Saint-Yrieix-la-Perche, is the oldest porcelain factory in Limoges still in business. It manufactures both traditional and contemporary works.

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