I spent a good part of my life working in ceramics; the major part working with fine china and crystal. A friend of mine suggested that I write an article to help brides choose their china.
It’s funny, but I seldom write about ceramics anymore. I wrote a couple of books on the subject and I was editor of Ceramic Industry Magazine so it’s not that I’m not well practiced in the subject. Writing is always an avocation with me and separate from my profession.
I wrote novels in my spare time. I did write one novel that was centered in a pottery in Lancaster County Pennsylvania. The novel is Bone China. Bone China is a complex detective story where the detective wonders what’s happening to missing people from a small Pennsylvania town. Are they being cremated in an abandoned ceramic factory and being used to make bone china? Nazis? That’s as close as I got to ceramics.
Well let’s get to the point. Let’s cover some of the factors you should consider when selecting your fine china. First, remember that porous china is not covered here. It is called semi-vitreous ware, queen’s ware, and such. Stoneware is not covered either.
There are several kinds of fine china in which you will be interested. The first is Bone China.
Bone china is made from bone ash. Bone ash is made from the high-temperature calcinations of animal bones. Bone ash is a commodity. That means it comes from a number of different countries and the bones of many types of animals are used.
The bones used to make bone ash come from camels, horses, cows, hogs, llamas, and other critters.
The question here is: Does it matter to you?
If you are Jewish, it might.
I can only say this: When the bones are calcined all organic matter is destroyed. The bone ash becomes exactly like the natural mineral found in phosphate rock. You can’t tell the difference once it is in the ceramic.
I’ve been a consultant to Jewish Rabbis over the year. The consensus has always been that the high temperature purification of the bone ash makes it kosher. If you are concerned about this, talk to your rabbi.
Remember this: The bone ash used to make particular china may not have been made from hog bones. Most large china companies specify that the bone ash not contain hog bones. However, from my experience in the industry, most bone ash suppliers can not always guarantee that some hog bones might creep into their process.
Many Jewish brides have decided that bone china is kosher. I agree with them for one reason, most Rabbis agree with them.
How much bone ash should be in bone china? The classical formula is 50%. If the content is below 47% you might lose one of the most important properties of bone china. Bone china should be white, not off-white to any degree.
Bone ash contributes translucency to the composition. If you put your hand behind a bone china plate, you should see it vividly. The reason is that the refractive index of the phosphate compounds formed is the same as the glass formed in the ceramic. Since they are the same, light is not diffracted.
Just remember this. Bone china should be stark white and translucent. That means that there is very little ball clay in the composition. Fine English kaolin retains the whiteness of the body. Chinastone is a flint / feldspar mixture used by British bone china potteries for the same reason.
Bone china is made by the china process. This means that the body is fired to a high temperature until the body is completely dense or vitreous. This first firing is called the bisk fire or bisque fire. After the bisque fire, the ware is heated, glazed, and fired at a lower temperature. Decorations are applied by decalcomania, hand painting, embossing, etc. More on that later.
Non-bone Fine China
Most manufactures make an Ivory grade of china. Ivory is very popular and also very beautiful if the body is formulated correctly and the body matured completely during bisk firing.
The composition is what we ceramic engineers call “feldspathic.” That means the body contains the mineral feldspar. The concentration of feldspar is high to guarantee that the body will be vitreous. Canadian feldspar (nepheline syenite) is sometimes used to lower bisk firing temperatures.
English kaolin guarantees the desired degree of whiteness and translucency. Only small amounts of ball clay are used. The remaining ingredient is flint. For both fine china and bone china the body must be ground to fineness to develop the desired properties. Glazing and decorating are the same as for bone china.
All of this got started by the Chinese. The word “kaolin” (china clay) was derived from the name of a Chinese province. Maybe the province still exists under the same name for all I know. The classical composition is 50% kaolin, 25% flint (silica), and 25% feldspar.
European Porcelains are popular with brides. Some manufactures have been able to approach the whiteness and translucency of Chinese Porcelain. Note that bone china is the closest match to Chinese Porcelain.
Porcelain is made by the porcelain process. While the china process starts with a high bisk fire, the porcelain process starts with a low bisk fire. The ware is easily grazed because it is porous after bisk firing. No heating is required. The final glost fire is a high-temperature fire in contrast to the low-temperature glost fire in the china process. In the porcelain process, the body and glaze are matured together. This adds strength.
Because of the higher temperatures required to decorate porcelain, the result is not always as desirable as with fine china (often the best decorations) and bone china.
Parian China and Frit Porcelain
Low-temperature porcelains are made are very attractive. These are less popular than bone china, porcelain, and fine china for American brides.
Evaluating Your China or Porcelain
I don’t want to frustrate you with more technical details. Let me just list a few items to consider relating to the desirability and life of your china.
The Foot and Back
When ceramic engineers go out to dinner, the first thing they do is turn the plate over. Why? Well, first they can see who manufactured it. Some fine restaurants use fine china (includes bone china). Most others use Hotel China, an American invention designed specifically for restaurant service. What is suitable for restaurants is probably not suitable for your china cabinet.
Looking at the foot, and I suggest that you look at the foot first, see if it is glazed. If it is unglazed rub your finger carefully and slowly around the foot. Watch for sharp glaze projections as you do this. I don’t want you to cut your pretty finger.
Is the foot rough?
If it is rough, it should be buffed until it is smooth using a buffing stone. An unglazed foot will require that you keep doilies between the plates in your china cabinet so that the foot does not rub the glaze on other plates. You will have to be careful while washing the dishes and while clearing the plates from the table. You don’t want scratches on your glaze, do you?
Most fine china and bone china has an unglazed foot. The foot is polished at the factory before you get it, but make sure you check every piece.
If the foot is glazed, look for pin marks on the under surface of the glaze. Such ware can not be fired on the foot because it will stick to the kiln setters. The pin marks may be hardly noticeable. Some manufacturers set the ware on tiny ceramic spheres rather than on pins. The marks are hardly noticeable. If there are pin marks, make sure they have been polished to remove rough edges.
Look at the manufacturers mark on the bottom of the plate. Is it centered? Can you easily read it? Does it have the name of the pattern? Now decide if you care about such features. Take one last look at the back of the plate. Are there any glaze flaws? Does the glaze application look uniform on the back of the plate? Are there any pits, inclusions, or blemishes? Any rough spots?
The Front of the Plate
Turn the plate over and rub your finger around the rim. Is it as smooth as silk or is it rough? Any thin spots? Look at the surface of the glaze for any pits or impurities. Remember that different manufacturers have different inspection standards. A very small pit might be considered allowable. One manufacturer might have a standard that says no pits except a tiny one on the back of the plate.
Most fine china and bone china manufacturers use lead glazes. The reason is the brilliance of the glaze. Is the lead a health problem? Not under normal circumstances. Most people only use their fine china nine (9) times each year. It could be a problem is you give your child his or her orange juice in a fine china cup every day. Don’t do that.
So, is the glaze brilliant and free of defects?
Although manufacturers have reduced the number of decorating firing by combining functions, traditionally there are three decorating firings. The first decorating firing is called the “decal fire” and that is when decals are placed according to design. Decals come as screen printed or lithographic. The color in screen printed decals is thicker and often more intense than in lithographic decals.
The enamel or heavy color is placed next in the “enamel fire.” Now days, enamel may be placed on the decal and combined in a single firing.
The last firing is the “precious metal” firing or “geld firing.” Gold or platinum is applied to the rim and certain areas of the design. This too is sometimes applied to the decal and omits all but one firing.
Here are some decoration considerations. Are the decorations positioned properly on the plate? Rub your finger over them. Are they sitting on top of the glaze or are they buried deep into it? Decals should sink into the glaze so that they do not wear off. They should not sink so far that they are no longer attractive. Hard gold is gold that will not buff that has sunk too far into the glaze. Soft gold is gold that is sitting on top of the glaze and is easily rubbed off. Watch for soft gold on porcelain. The glaze is very hard and it is hard to get decorations and precious metal to sink into the glaze. (“Hard” in this sense means not very fusible during deco fire.)
Service Problems for Fine China
Fine china faces your eating utensils, your dish washer, and storage.
Yes, fine china can be damaged in your china cabinet if the foot of one plate rubs on the surface of another plate which scratches the glaze. Once scratched, it is scratched. Glaze hardness is highest in high-temperature porcelain and lowest in low-glost-fire fine china. Bone china is in between. Bone china is a good choice for beauty and durability.
Knife marking is the worst from the utensils. The marks can actually be cuts in the glaze and can’t be removed. They also can be metal rubbed from utensils which can often be removed by SoftScrub®. Here, I suggest that you do not use extremely hard steak knives in fine china service.
Cups and Other Shapes
Look at the handles of the cups. I said, “cups,” not “cup.” You must look at several to tell the quality.
If the cup handle is formed with the cup by slip casting, it should look perfect.
If the cup handle is stuck to the cup after the main body of the cup is formed, it may not be perfect. Stuck handles sometimes fall off in service. This is a manufacturer’s nightmare.
The problem is that a plastic formed handle does not “fit well” (during shrinkage) on a plastic formed cup.
There is not as much of a problem with cast handles being placed on a plastic formed cup. (The problem is technical and I’ll not explain it here. E-mail me if you really want to know.)
Look at the join where the handle meets the cup. Does it look neat and clean? Is there excessive glaze buildup where they join? You don’t want anything ugly do you?
Check the bowls and see if they will stack. If they will not stack, I have a suggestion: run! (Well, if you can put up with the bowls not stacking and you just love the design, go ahead and buy them.)
Teapots should have their handles checked as with cups. Check the knobs on the lids of teapots and casseroles. Do you think they will stay on? Are they attractively applied?
Read the guarantee carefully. (Well, have someone read it.) Ask how long replacement for your pattern is guaranteed. You don’t want to have to go to Replacements Inc. (http://www.replacements.com/index.htm?s1=kx&896&), if you don’t have to.
Yes, you can e-mail me with questions.
Bride, china, how to choose china, bone china, porcelain, china care, china defects, fine china, parian, frit porcelain, processing, storage