The last artisan of the ancient Quang Duc pottery line died early last year at 90, and the only artisan still making My Duc pottery is already in his 50s.
It is time to take a journey back in time to learn about the heyday of the pottery lines that earned national and regional fame for central Vietnam before they die out for good.
Many pottery villages prospered in south central Vietnam thousands of years ago, but the most famous ones were My Thien in Quang Ngai Province, Quang Duc in Phu Yen and Go Sanh in Binh Dinh.
Pottery relics from the villages are evidence of strong cultural interaction and trade between countries in the region centuries ago.
My Thien was famous since its products were used by the Nguyen royal family (1802-1945), then based in Hue.
According to documents stored at the worship house for the village’s ancient potters, two men, Pham Cong Dac and Nguyen Cong At, introduced the craft in the late 18th century. At was a migrant from northern Vietnam.
Dac received many royal honors for making products glazed with gold and pearls.
In 2010 some people stumbled upon an ancient pottery unit underground that had the remains of home appliances whose designs and patterns showed cultural interaction between the Vietnamese and Cham peoples.
Archeologist Doan Ngoc Khoi said the facility dated back to the 16th century and some of the styles were later incorporated in My Thien pottery.
Just like Go Sanh and Quang Duc, My Thien pottery was largely hand-made.
Artisans put clean clay on a potter’s wheel to shape it before using a knife or stick to smooth it.
They molded animal and flower reliefs for decoration. Then they aired the items to dry before putting them in the furnace, usually for three days.
Artisans said they would watch the fire until it turned completely golden in color to know that the products were done.
Products with enamel had to be burned a second time after glazing.
Different temperatures gave different colors to the products, and thus artisans sometimes had a unique product they could not replicate.
My Thien pottery became very popular during the second half of the 19th century. Boats carried them to nearby provinces, to the south, to Laos and Cambodia.
Many items were transported by road to the Central Highlands, where some families to this day keep My Thien wine jars as a treasure.
But like most handicrafts in the country that have faded with modernity and people preferring convenience, My Thien pottery has gotten down to one maker, Dang Van Trinh, 52.
Even that is however better than the fate of the 400-year-old Quang Duc pottery, which had to say goodbye to its last living practitioner, Nguyen Thinh, last year.
Many Quang Duc items were also sold to southern Vietnam.
The dredging of the Saigon River in the late 1970s turned up a number of them.
Thinh said during a visit by researchers in 2003 that Quang Duc pottery used two kinds of clay, a green one for common products and gold colored for products meant for the royal palace or used for worship.
They mixed the two for large items.
Artisans pressed bloody oysters, the kind that bleeds inside the shell, around the items before burning to create special coloring effects.
That is why all Quang Duc pottery items have special colors.
The techniques, which both Vietnamese and foreign experts have praised as unique, stopped being practiced widely after 1945.
Thinh said a Nguyen family from nearby Binh Dinh Province brought the craft over and started making Quang Duc pottery in the late 16th century.
His stories and other evidence have prompted researchers to suggest that Quang Duc was a continuation of Go Sanh pottery in Binh Dinh which was famous between the 12th and 15th centuries under the Vijaya Dynasty of the Cham and the Vietnam’s Dai Viet Dynasty.
Historical documents show that trade in Go Sanh pottery contributed largely to the prosperity of Champa.
There were so many production centers that it looked almost like an industrial zone that served overseas demand as well.
There is a lot of evidence, including a pottery jar found in a sunken ship salvaged at Pandan, the Philippines, to show that Go Sanh pottery was used across Southeast Asia.
Aoyagi Yoji, a Japanese researcher into Go Sanh pottery, said there was a trading network in the area in the second half of the 15th century supplied by artisans in Binh Dinh.
Based on many items made between 1573 and 1620 and found in sunken ships in the area, researchers believe that Go Sanh and Quang Duc pottery were part of a pottery road at sea.