The reason is that although primitive the process is incredibly complex. Even as the division of labor over time, over centuries, allows specialization and advancement in technology, machinery, and equipment and marketing and transportation, at each separate point in the process there is still art at every single step. The craftsman, the artist, the technicians, and even the drudge worker, each have their contributions brought together inside the studio. And for each type of pottery, the steps are just amazing, awe-inspiring, actually.
In High School I was dismayed to learn that the colored glazes are not simple paint. No. You do not buy a jar of the color paint that you need as you do for painting a plastic model. Instead you buy a jar of thin wet clay that contains minerals that change color when they are fired, and that change depends upon the firing conditions, the precise temperature of firing and its duration. If any of that is changed, the amount of mineral, the composition of the minerals, the purity of the mineral, the temperature of firing, or its duration then the result will be unexpected. The result is always unpredictable. Opening the kiln is always a matter of deep suspense. Things are destroyed in there. Hardly anything comes out as expected. There is a lot of trial and error that goes into each separate piece and each separate color and at each stage. Color is just one of the specialty trades involved in the whole process, highly specialized, so that at least some of the surprise is eliminated.
The same is true for clay. Specialization and technological advancement has made it possible to simply buy the type clay required where there is an incredible amount of work and engineering, machinery, operation, equipment and training, and quality control, behind that clay production.
Kilns are specialized to specific requirements. Usually no longer built on site and fired with available combustable resources and materials, and temperatures basically guessed by trial and error and practice and through serial failures.
Finally, each method of production from potter's wheel to pinching, and free forming, to layered coloring and glazing through multiple firings at various ranges of temperatures, all have their own specialized techniques. For example, fired pieces that are unglazed are porous. Some glazes are applied directly to raw clay before their first firing, other colors are applied after the piece is fired, while other colors are applied over previously glazed pieces. Some pieces are painted with expensive glaze that contain metal and are applied over clear glazed pieces that were already fired twice, the first time to turn the object into fired bisque, the second time to melt a carrier that burns off that is mixed with glass that melts over the bisque, and third time at lower heat to melt an expensive paint that looks like you're painting with blood that burns off and melts gold particles and leaves behind actual gold over the glaze. One wrong move and the gold fails to melt into each other and misses areas, or applied too heavily and melts to drip over and sticks to the shelf in the kiln. It's all very tricky.
I looked at a dozen videos for a good one that shows the process for a simple Amerind bowl from beginning to end, and honestly, all the videos I watched today are obnoxious. None of the videos that I watched today are suitable for showing why a simple decorated Amerind bowl is expensive. The technique is actually Japanese, even there it was showing a bowl being thrown, or showing a pre-fired bowl being painted. I haven't found a video that brings it all together in one video, except for this Khan academy video on ancient Greek vase that describes the beginning of things, not as matters are today having advanced considerably. Still, it gives a very good idea of the steps involved post industrialization inside a modern studio. And you are left to wonder, how does the artist throw each bowl so precisely, so consistently, so that they stack well enough and are painted so skillfully to be so nearly perfectly similar in appearance for a set? I think the answer is by doing the same thing a million times, and I might actually prefer some slight variation in size and painted results, as proof that they're all handmade. And after all that, in the end then, $25.00 per cereal bowl seems a good bargain. These artists are not getting rich by cranking out bowls one after another, while the cost for the energy of firing alone is expensive, no matter the form of energy used.
Here is Khan academy video on Ancient Greek clay vase production. It is a worthwhile video.
This video of throwing a bowl with slip decoration is pretty cool but doesn't show clay preparation, nor throwing on the potter's wheel nor final fired result.
This video is pretty cool too showing an already fired bowl, already partially glazed, being decorated in raku style and final firing, a completely different technique. You'll be impressed with the technique and with the unexpected and hardly predictable, and surprising result.
Here is Arizona Highway's offering of clay bowls, and thinking of the cost of cereal bowls, you go, "What? What? $100.00 for four little bowls? You've got to be out of your freaking mind!"
And contrarily, I wonder why it's not $100.00 for one little bowl. Why are they giving away their art so inexpensively?
I already have a million bowls. I don't need four more. But I would like to have just one. Because, hummingbird! You can see the slight variation between plant and bird in the portions that show, and you can tell they do not stack precisely as machine produced bowls would. I like these bowls very much. And I'll bet their actual physical store offers a lot more different types of Amerind design bowls.
They're charming. That's my photo of their protective mailing cover over their November 2016 issue.
This photo is from their website, tab shop, tab store, tab food.
The platter is $70.00, that's mostly likely made by pouring wet clay (slip) into a flat plaster mold with another plaster mold cover. Seems simple enough but these large flat surfaces are tricky. They warp and scrape easily. Still, its cactus and humming bird painting and painted trim are both very attractive. This would make a wonderful gift, and to the right person, well appreciated and loved. I know the exact person who would love this the most and actually use it. When you think about all the hand done, all the craftsmanship, all the art behind them, it's all very reasonably priced.
I'll tell you, a friend in San Francisco sent me a few bowls that he threw and painted and fired himself. They're odd little bowls, and I consider them treasures. I'd sell them to you for a million dollars. Okay, maybe you could talk me down to a thousand dollars. Okay fine! Five hundred dollars, and that's my final offer. Here are two of them holding guacamole for a party. And all that guacamole went like, zap.