IN THE 17th and 18th centuries the search for the porcelain formula was as intense as for the recipe for turning base metal to gold. Porcelain from China (were it had been made since 618) and Japan were avidly imported into Europe at prices which warranted it to be called "white gold." Kings and queens collected the precious products, and set their alchemists to finding the secret, the arkanum.

"Berlin Porcelain," 143 porcelain objects from the Belvedere Collection of West Berlin's Charlottenburg Palace will be exhibited from Friday through November 23 at the Renwick Gallery. The objects are a visual history of Prussian porcelain. Winfried Baer, curator of the collection, has written an accompanying text, tracing the history of what became the Koeniglich-Preussiche-Porzellan Manufaktur (KPM). As Staatliche Porzellan Manufaktur (since 1918), the china is imported into this country by Tiffany's of New York.

The company is not well known in the United States, but in Germany it has been considered by some to be second only to Meissen of Saxony, and the equal of Nymphenburg of Bavaria.

Baer was in Washington recently to oversee the exhibit. And he took time to talk about the treasures as he checked them over in the Renwick's staging area.

The story of European porcelain begins about 1708 when Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus and Johann Friedrich Bottger, for the first time in Europe, made hard paste porcelain -- pate dure -- compounded of kaolin or china clay (nonfusible aluminum silicate) and petuntse or china stone (fusible aluminum silicate).

Berlin porcelain's beginnings go back to Frederick the Great (1740-1786) of Prussia. He inherited Queen Sophie Charlotte's collection of porcelain at the Charlottenburg Palace, augmented by her queenly sucessors: 6,000 oriental pieces, 3,000 Meissen and porcelains from Vienna and Paris. But he couldn't produce it himself. He had no formula and no manufactury. His court, as most others, was beseiged by longbearded types who claimed, falsely, to have found the secret of the material which would ring like a bell when thumped. Heinrich Pott, a Berlin chemistry professor, carried out 30,000 experiments in his search.

In 1745, Frederick captured Saxony and the Meissen factory, but he kept looking for a way to make china at home. Finally in 1751, Wilhelm Caspar Wegely, who had bribed a chemist to sell him the Arkanum , won a 50-year monopoly from Frederick, beginning about 1753. But a lot of good it did him -- he had to close in 1757, for reasons yet to be defined. After a period in which the factory was run by Johann Ernst Gotzkowsky (1761-'63), Frederick himself, on Aug. 24, 1763, bought the factory, lock, stock and barrel of 44,866 pieces of porcelain in varying degrees of finish.

From the Wegely period, the Renwick show has a 1755 pair of lovers, like so many of the figures from Wegely, copied from a Meissen design. A cup and saucer, of the same year, in the show, decorated with relief "Indian Flowers," is less cloying. From the Gotzkowsky era, Baer has chosen to show the 1763 teapot with a mask spout and a twig handle, painted with German flowers. It's rather nice.

Frederick was intent on having first-class china. He mounted a search for a whiter clay and finally found the kaolin deposit near Halle in 1771. He built extensive factories, hired some 350 more workers, took his royal visitors through his factories (and put the finger on them to buy souvenirs), and even designed some pieces.

But, reports Baer, "he remained his own best customer . . . By the time of his death, he had purchased 200,000 thalers' worth of porcelain, evenly divided among 21 dinner services for the numerous royal castles and many official gifts."

In 1772, in honor of a defense alliance, the Prussian king gave Catherine II of Russia a dessert service for 120, together with a huge plateau of figures. The czarina was portrayed in white porcelain, enthroned under an elaborate canopy, attended by the spirits of arts and sciences and examples of Russian ethnic peoples. In the Renwick show is a figure group representing astronomy, from the service.

Frederick's interest and highly sophisticated taste resulted in the Rococo golden period of Berlin porcelain (1763-1786), never to be equalled.

In 1795, aware of the dangers of lead glazes used in the common pottery, KPM began to make an inexpensive line called "health utensils," making porcelain available to most people.

One of the really dreadful periods of design came after Napoleon's defeat in 1815. Baer describes the designs: "imitation semiprecious stones, Mosaik representations in the manner of Florence and Rome, decorations in fired gold, and simulated bronze, where the hallmark of KPMcreations."

About 1840, the color decoration was especially brilliant, expressed in paintings of buildings, especially monuments, flowers and landscapes. But, Baer points out, the Paris Exposition of 1855 criticized the porcelain's design.

In 1878, Hermann Seger and the chemist Albert Heinecke invented a soft-paste porcelain which allowed the expansion of underglazed colors, including an ox blood glaze, a cracked surface glaze and a crystal glaze.

Jugendstil, the German verion of Art Nouveau, made use of crystal glaze's smooth, flat surfaces. A vase about 1899 was decorated with drops and bubbles in enamel and gold, very much like Gustave Klimt's paintings of the period. It may be the loveliest piece in the show.

One especially good-looking vase, modeled by Max Schroder, in 1913, has an underglaze painting, with a frieze of ovals and tendrills at the base and neck. The "Ceres" pattern by Theodor Schmuz-Baudiss after 1912-13, shown in the exhibit as a square bowl, dessert plate and bread plate are rather typical Jugendstil designs, not to be compared with the Viennese Secezzion.

One of the more interesting of the later work is a portrait mask of the painter Oskar Kokoschka, 1962, begun by the artist's sister, finished by the artist, in gray craquele (crackled) porcelain.

Baer deplores today's nostalgia which results in slavish copying of the old and more sticky designs.

A longing for reproduction china putti (cherubs) and Dresden shepardesses surely is a lovesickness which should be cured by the good modern design now being produced by American, English and Japanese studio potters.

The Berlin Porcelain exhibit will tour the United States for the next two years, organized by the Smithsonian Institution's Traveling Exhibition Service.