Nao by Lladro History and Maker’s Marks

Nao Lladro Figurines Factory Marks History
Nao Lladro Figurines Factory Marks Graphic

History, Maker’s Marks, and Factory Stamps

Contrary to a popular story about the creation of Nao Spanish porcelain figurines – that Nao pieces are really just Lladro seconds, the Nao brand porcelains started life in 1967 as a separate manufactury under the name of Rosal. The brand was renamed Zaphir in 1975. Then, due to the success and popularity of the pieces both in the United States and internationally, Zaphir was ‘officially’* renamed Nao in 1982. This name comes from the old sailing boats of the time of Columbus, and symbolizes a return journey to origins, conveying creativity, skill, and magic.

*This is the company’s official version of its history. Pre-1982 Nao marks have been found which indicate the Nao mark may have been ‘unofficially’ used as early as the late 1960s, and almost certainly in the late 1970s.

NAO Official Porcelain Factory Marks
NAO Official Porcelain Factory Marks

The NAO mark images below have been found of authenticated NAo porcelain pieces, but are not documented in official NAO history materials.

NAO Real Unofficial Porcelain Factory Marks
NAO Real Unofficial Porcelain Factory Marks

The “official” version of Nao’s beginnings, which comes from Nao itself, is that, in seeking to expand their company, the Lladro brothers bought a small porcelain factory near their home city of Valencia and began collaborating with the best local porcelain artisans to define a style that would look less sophisticated than the Lladro image, but would instead represent creations full of charm and innocence. This new line was branded, Rosal.

The story starts with Rosal porcelains

Rosal porcelain tag and factory stamp
Rosal porcelain stick-on tag
The first Rosal mark
was a stick-on tag
Rosal porcelain impressed factory mark
The Rosal impressed
factory mark.

But… there is another version of Nao’s beginnings that comes from one of the Lladro brothers.

According to a passage from a 2002 memoir by José Lladró, Passenger of Life; Memories and Opinions of an Entrepreneur (Spain: Editorial Planeta, 2002), the beginnings of the brand that would become Nao actually started with the defection of three Lladro staff members.

In a chapter called “A Providential Conflict,” Lladró describes how, “in the mid-sixties,” two of Lladró’s sculptors and one of its chemists turned renegade and struck out to establish their own competing factory in Chirivella.

José Lladró’s account makes it clear the brothers saw these new products as a threat to the dominance of their Lladro brand, and they decided to fight fire with fire, setting up their own rival brand to go head to head with the renegade company (in his book, José Lladró, never names the renegade’s brand name). This occurred in 1967, and the new brand was named Rosal because, according to José Lladró, the brothers did not want to involve the Lladró name in what was sure to be an ugly competitive fight.

The brothers were right, it did turn into an ugly and public competitive fight, including a messy lawsuit in which Lladró prevailed and ended up buying out the renegade company. To quote José Lladró, “That company turned out to be unimportant to us and closed down shortly afterward” (José Lladró, p. 98). Rosal, meanwhile, “became the seed of what today is Nao, our second brand” (José Lladró, p.99).

Rosal porcelain stick-on tag
Apparently, the primary purpose of the Rosal brand was to squash the renegades brand, and the brothers were unsure if the Rosal brand would be successful because the first Rosal mark was just a stick-on tag. And the fact that the country of origin was noted as ESPAÑA, indicates they did not plan the line for export since the U.S. import laws have long required that the country of origin be identified in English.

But the Rosal line of porcelain figurines did catch on, and sometime after 1969, (undocumented), the Rosal factory began using an impressed factory mark. (as seen below)

Nao Rosal Factory mark
Rosal Factory Impressed Mark


From Rosal to Zaphir, maybe…

From the official Nao company web site we have this explanation of the transition from Rosal to Zaphir:

Following the success of the new brand, the next step came in 1975. The name of the collection changed to Zaphir and the factory moved to new premises with larger workshops, with a view to expanding the company in the future. Zaphir creations were more stylized and embraced a wider variety of themes. They were the natural result of the porcelain mastery gained by the young artisans.

However, the collectible porcelains website, El Portal Porcelana, offers another explanation of the relationship between Nao and Zaphir.

Nao Zaphir Factory mark
Zaphir Stamped Factory mark

Their version of the Zaphir history is that it was a separate factory in the Valencia region, and the sculptor for this brand was none other than Jose Puche, one of the famous core Lladro collection sculptors. The first Zaphir catalog was in 1978, and the Zaphir brand ceased existence in the early 1980s, (which does correspond with the introduction of the first Nao factory stamp but does not correspond to the official Nao version that Zaphir started in 1975). The Zaphir factory mark was a stamped mark and was only recorded as a stamped mark.

Nao by Lladro – a world-wide success

The timing of the first official Nao factory mark does seem to coincide with the end of Zaphir porcelain figurines production, so perhaps the process was as Nao says – a renaming of the factory’s production. Also, both the Rosal and Zaphir factories were located in the region around Valencia. According to company spokesmen,

“All NAO pieces are created by the team of sculptors at the City of Porcelain and are made at the company’s workshops in the town of Xirivella, in Valencia (Spain).”

Curiously, the official timeline for the birth of Nao, and its marks, is contradicted by physical products, (more on that below), but here is the design progression of Nao’s factory stamps, (back-stamps), as Nao lists them.

The Nao marks below are all factory stamps, not impressed marks, and the official mark color has changed from the original black to the current dark brown. (there also appear to be authentic cobalt blue Nao marks that are not listed by Nao in their factory mark history)

Offical Nao Factory Stamps
1982 Nao Factory Stamp Maker's Mark 1996 Nao Factory Stamp Maker's Mark
2003 Nao Factory Stamp Maker's Mark 2007 Nao Factory Stamp Maker's Mark
2009 Nao Factory Stamp Maker's Mark

*Note: These illustrations do not include other maker’s marks and dates that may be included on individual pieces, and do not represent the true dark brown coloration of the Nao factory back-stamps

More Nao marks and dating confusion…

Earlier and other Nao factory stamps and impressions
*There may not be any real confusion about Nao’s historical timeline, and factory stamps and marks at all. The issue may be just a case of Nao’s official history and marks data being abbreviated on their site. Here are some examples of other Nao marks and stamps taken from authenticated Nao pieces.

1970's Nao factory mark and back-stamp
1970’s Nao factory back-stamp mark

This Nao back-stamp was used in the early 1970s, (even though Nao supposedly didn’t exist before 1975). It is a back-stamp mark, and the coloration should have been in Nao’s dark brown, but it is a photo from an authenticated Nao piece and appears to be almost black in color. Possibly it was an early back-stamp used in the late 1960s. (see the next example below)

It also illustrates the style of the impressed Nao mark used in the early productions of the mid-1960s. The fact that this styled mark did not impress well may have been why it was changed to a back-stamp.

nao 1960s cobalt blue factory mark
Nao 1960s cobalt blue factory back-stamp mark

Cobalt Blue Nao back-stamp
This Nao back-stamp was semi-authenticated by experienced porcelain collector Peggy Whiteneck at El Portal

It was found on a porcelain piece that Peggy was fairly certain was an authentic early Nao figurine. She thinks the missing letters of “Spain” may have just been a production mistake, and that the cobalt blue color might have been used in the transition period between the early 1960s impressed mark, and the early 1970s dark brown back-stamp of the design.


nao 1978 factory mark
Nao 1978 factory back-stamp mark

1980’s Nao Factory Back-stamp Mark
Although very similar to the “official” 1982 Nao back-stamp, (shown above), this mark has a slightly different layout, (note the higher position of the word NAO), and is clearly dated 1978.


nao 1988 factory mark
Nao 1988 factory back-stamp mark

Mid-1980s Nao Factory Back-stamp Mark
And again – although very similar to the “official” 1996 Nao back-stamp, (shown above), this mark appears the same but is clearly dated 1988. It is thought that this design was in use from the mid to late 1980s, all the way up to when it was designated as an official in 1996, and replaced in 2003 with a more streamlined version that dropped the word “Lladro” from the stamp.

Unmarked Nao porcelain authentication
It should be noted that while a recognizable stamp or mark can authenticate the origin and maker of a piece of collectible porcelain, the absence of a mark or stamp does not mean a piece is not authentic. As with many porcelain makers and factories, some early production pieces are not marked. It is typical for makers not to worry about maker’s or origin identifications until the line becomes a collectible success.

This was the case in almost all of the Lladro-associated lines of porcelain figurines and pieces. Lladro, Rosal, and Nao.


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