Chinese Blue and White Porcelain Charger, Ming Dynasty, Jiajing Period, China, 1522 to 1566.

The fact that cobalt’s bright and distinct color like a vivid sky or deep lake water is derived from a dull, greyish compound extracted from deep within mountains only scratches the surface of its intriguing story. Used as a popular colorant since the 1700’s, the Cobalt Institute estimates that humans have been using cobalt in some form for 2600 years.

Kobold from “The Little White Feather”, a fairy tale.

The name cobalt comes from Kobold, a sprite or goblin from German mythology. In medieval times, German miners believed that these spirits haunted the mines and poisoned the miners, and they claimed even to hear them knocking and working with in the shafts. Though a superstition, this story is based in reality, when cobalt is mixed with certain other elements, it is deadly.

I was surprised to learn that in addition to being used for pottery decoration and glass, cobalt, also referred to as the less palatable moniker “smalt”, is a critical raw material for many products and industries. Its versatility makes it both a bio-essential element at the center of B12 and a key ingredient in rechargeable batteries. It is also important in the industrial and technological development sector.

Late Roman finger ring with Cobalt blue glass.

In 1735, when the element was isolated and studied for the first time by the Swedish chemist George Brandt, its ability to create the iconic blue color was discovered. However, the earliest examples of cobalt glass were found in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Aegean region. Used in blue and white pottery all around the world, fragments have been found in China dating as far back as the 11th century.

Ming dynasty Jiajing reign porcelain with cobalt under colorless glaze.

In England, a chinoiserie china pattern referred to as Willow became wildly popular, and it is still being sold today. The true origin story of the pattern is unclear, but it was created using motifs by various engravers for Josiah Spode. The legendary story was created later as a way to promote the pattern. Through various popular culture promotions, the blue willow pattern has maintained its popularity.

19th century willow pattern dishes.

One modern version by Churchill China of England for sale at the Vermont Country Store.

An 19th century cup and saucer.

One of the most dramatic uses of cobalt is in glass-making. From the intricate Victorian glass pieces to Depression-era glass, people love to collect Cobalt glass. My father had a collection of blue medicine bottles and as a child I would marvel at the way they refracted light and the myriad, sometimes odd shapes they could produce.

Unlike more embellished Victorian glass, these medicine and drink bottles are not very far removed from what we still use today. A very popular version of the blue glass is called Bristol Blue glassware due to its origin in Bristol, England and it has been in use since the 18th century.

Victorian Pair Bristol Blue Glass Lustres.


19th century Bristol Blue Glass.

There are many different types of blue glass, from the everyday to the collectible to the sublime to the somewhat strange. Another of the myriad uses for cobalt is in magnets. Looking at it in it’s many forms, I believe it does contain magnetic qualities.

MacBeth-Evans Cobalt Blue Depression Glass American Sweetheart 15 Server Plate.