The name Lladro has for me been synonymous with porcelain figurines with exaggerated proportions (unnaturally short torsos with overly long legs to compensate), usually preoccupied with overly sentimental themes. But as we moved through France and into Spain I became aware that there might be more to this company than the rather limited range of items that I had previously seen in New Zealand. According to local sources Lladro is in the world’s top five brands, presumably fifth on the list, and must be one of Spain’s profile exporters.
So, as we headed to Valencia, we decided to make the minor detour to Tavernes Blanques which as the Lladro promotional material describes it, is where all their works ‘are born’. The factory and museum are located in the light industrial suburbs north of the city, which made visiting quite straight forward as we approached from the North. In fact given the navigational difficulties we have experienced previously, this was a breeze. The website and brochures all imply that it is necessary to book in advance for a tour, but since we couldn’t do this easily, we decided to just ‘turn up’.
The first surprise was the size of the enterprise. I’m not at all sure exactly what I had expected, but the factory and grounds occupy over one million square feet, an entire block. We initially parked in the street but then realised that there was ample visitor parking inside. Since it was empty we decide to go in and use one of the coach parks they have set aside…easier to manoeuvre into and out of!
We were waved in through the gated entry, and directed to the visitor’s center, which was an interesting little office building ‘suspended’ over a pond to the left of a new and rather smart smoked glass building. As we walked across the car park we noted the tennis courts, large swimming pool and what appeared to be cafeteria/social areas; the work force seemed well catered for.
The whole set-up seemed quite formal, and when I told the Receptionist that we had not made an appointment, her initial reaction suggested that we might be asked to come back some other time! However, she busied herself on the phone and then announced that there was a guide available and that if we would wait ten minutes we could start a tour. Good news! Our guide arrived, a very dapper be-suited young man, and joined by a group of American Cruise Liner refugees we were escorted into the visitors’ center.
This building houses showrooms and a workshop that appears to have been set up separately from the main factory. Visitors are shown the full manufacturing, or should I say crafting process, but without having to traipse around what is obviously a very large plant. The tour is well done, professionally delivered and exactly the right length. Starting at one end of a laboratory-like workshop visitors are shown how a number of different figurines of varying complexity are cast, fettled, assembled and decorated. The kilns are off limits for safety reasons. Unfortunately no photos can be taken of the process, but suffice to say it is an extremely exacting variation on the slip casting process used (and described in a previous post) by the French manufacturers in Limoges. The difference here being that the figures are typically quite complex, with numerous undercuts, and as such they have to be assembled from a number of parts.
Something that was unique to their process was the use of coloured clay bodies; for example, the limbs were cast in flesh coloured clay, with clothing being cast in white or blue tinted clay. This certainly sped up the finishing. All the parts are hollow, and have to be linked so that there are no sealed chambers. A tiny hole in the base allows air to escape as it expands during firing, without this they would explode.
The original models are sculpted by either in-house staff or invited artists, and then a painstaking process of deconstruction and mould making follows. Depending on the complexity of the item, it can take over a year to get from the original to a reproduction that is suitable for production. The workshop is spotless, and it needs to be, as they clearly maintain a very high level of quality control.
A new employee starts with relatively simple tasks, which gain in complexity over two or three years before an individual is considered trained. Even then, some staff specialise in different tasks that require different skills. One of the women we spoke to, who was forty and had apparently, started working there when she was fourteen, made different types of flowers. Others were adept at painting the details on the faces or clothing. Many staff have worked for the company for a long time, and one would imagine have become very valuable assets. Judging by the facilities that we glimpsed on the way in, they do seem to be looked after, and given Spain’s economic woes at the moment, they are probably keen to hang onto those jobs.
The tour over, we were invited to spend some time in the showroom which has a collection of work from over the years, plus new releases and items only available in Spain. Some of the work is truly remarkable, not all to my taste but undeniably impressive in the quality of the craftsmanship and execution. This is reflected in the prices; these are not inexpensive items, with some new releases destined for the growing market in China are priced in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Like their colleagues in Limoges, they have enlisted name designers to add contemporary elements to their range; some of these pieces were wonderful sculptural follies. Important additions, but they probably don’t really need to worry too much; the classic work is, well exactly that, classic. I've not yet seen anything of its type to match.
Our pockets weren’t deep enough, so we left quietly, leaving the serious haggling to the American Cruisers!
- Nick C