‘Swatow’, derived from the place-name Shantou, is in fact a misnomer. These ceramics were neither manufactured nor exported from Shantou, which was a small fishing village during the heyday of Swatow ware in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.
Modern-era archaeological excavations have confirmed that Swatow ware was actually produced in the Zhangzhou prefecture in the southeast of China, with nearby Yuegang acting as the main port of export. In the light of this improved knowledge, these ceramics are now often referred to as Zhangzhou wares.
Swatow ware is mostly hand-thrown and fired with a relatively thick glaze, and it survives in a variety of forms including dishes, vases, jars and bowls. Many of the pieces that exist today were salvaged from shipwrecks, including sunken vessels originating from Portugal, Spain and Holland.
Some Swatow ware pieces are monochrome or simply blue and white, while other polychrome examples use red, green and turquoise colourings. The glaze is often irregular, and many pieces have a characteristic powdering of coarse sand grains on the foot, a residue from the firing process. Commonly used motifs include lotus flowers and chrysanthemums, as well as dragons, sea creatures and birds.
Swatow ware does not command the prices that finer porcelain pieces from the Ming era achieve. Even so, its value continues to rise in a buoyant Chinese antiquities market.