Prussian Porcelain A Polished Legacy at KPM

Jörg Woltmann took over Berlin's ailing traditional porcelain maker KPM a decade ago. After bringing the company back from near insolvency, he is celebrating some success, including a new cultural foundation and a line of dishwasher-safe china.
Jörg Woltmann helped lead Berlin's traditional porcelain manufacturer KPM ouf of financial distress.

The new secret formula is designed to make life easier for connoisseurs of hand-painted, luxury porcelain.

Starting on May 1, a dinner service from the Royal Porcelain Factory in Berlin — known by its German acronym KPM — will come with a guarantee that it won't be damaged in the dishwasher.

After years of experimenting with dishwasher-safe porcelain, the 250-year-old company has finally declared victory. It was just one of several pieces of good news that company chief Jörg Woltmann announced last week, including double-digit growth, high capacity use and a new cultural foundation.

We don’t want to be the biggest. We want to be the best. Jörg Woltmann, Sole shareholder, KPM

Ten years ago, the banker purchased the centuries-old ceramics company, saving it from bankruptcy and guiding it through a controversial privatization by the Berlin city government. It was “not only a heartfelt wish, but a heartfelt responsibility," he said.

As bankruptcy loomed, consultants had warned him to avoid the company. But his family urged him to go for it.

Back then the traditional factory, which once belonged to Frederick the Great, was in danger of being split apart. Its forms, rights and collections were also on track to be transferred to Asia.

In retrospect, Mr. Woltmann said that he is thankful for “a certain naiveté” that helped him to meet the challenge.

In 2006, Mr. Woltmann didn’t have a special affinity for KPM’s business, beyond the fact that after his first business successes at age 28, he bought his first dinner service set from the company. But since then, he has become a collector and wants to ensure a secure future for the company.

For that reason, this month he set up a charitable foundation to support cultural endeavors related to KPM's traditional craft, such as exhibitions, publications and seminars devoted to porcelain production. There are also plans to award scholarships in research and development. Apprenticeships in porcelain painting are already highly sought-after, with some 30 applicants for each position.

Another focus of the cultural outreach is to increase familiarity with the historic KPM factory grounds and to promote the beautiful oven hall as a site for events.

The company has also recently boasted new business developments, opening a shop at Breuniger, the high-end fashion and lifestyle store in Stuttgart. KPM porcelain now also graces the presidential suites of several luxury hotels in Berlin.

Mr. Woltmann says that experience shows it's important for the company to remain flexible. Not long after he took over as sole shareholder of KPM, for example, the 2008 financial crisis hit. More recently, sanctions have interrupted the profitable business with Russian customers.

Still, today KPM has more workers than when he acquired the porcelain works a decade ago.

“It’s like building a house. Everything takes longer and costs more,” he said.

Co-director Bernd Lietke said there are still limits to how much porcelain can be delivered. “Making a white cup takes 14 days of work and involves 25 people,” he said, adding that art cannot be rushed.

Though the company still needs a lot of work, Much work lies behind him, Mr. Woltmann says that he has never regretted his decision to buy the company.

“We don’t want to be the biggest,” he said. “We want to be the best.”


This article originally appeared in the Berlin daily, Der Tagesspiegel. To contact the author: [email protected]