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The Beginner’s Guide to Dinnerware: Which One Says “You”?

The beginning of a new chapter, be it in the form of getting hitched, moving to a new home or leasing that first apartment after college, can be an exciting process, full of possibilities. However, for those of us who haven’t already decided on how to fill these new spaces ahead of time, the decision making process can be short of rousing and begin to seem even daunting.

One of the most significant milestones in an adult’s life, is investing in quality dinnerware. Needless to say, it is an important item to choose with care. It can be overwhelming to be standing in front of a selection of beautiful china and being asked to just choose one. When the selection depends not only on how they look, but the quality of the materials and meeting your needs at home, the process gets that much more difficult.

Because many people have inadequate knowledge of the differences between the terminology surrounding dinnerware, such as “earthenware”, “stoneware”, “bone china”, “fine china”, “porcelain” –sometimes used interchangeably and incorrectly — they often throw in the towel and buy out of frustration. But for those timeless pieces, perhaps even heirlooms you are looking to have for generations, it is worth getting informed and ending up with the set you’ve always wanted.

For this reason, we have compiled a short guide in identifying the different types of china, so that you can be well on your way to becoming an expert on the topic. 

Earthenware, Stoneware and Porcelain

You might have heard “earthenware” and “stoneware” used synonymously with each other, but dinnerware made from each of these items yields very different results. Ceramics in the umbrella term that encompasses any and every type of dinnerware and colloquially, it is used synonymous with china. All dinnerware is made of clay, which in turn is made of aluminum oxide, silicon dioxide and water. Sometimes manufacturers add other inclusions to the clay mixture, but the mentioned three ingredients compose every type of clay body.

Clay Body Mixture

Earthenware, stoneware and porcelain are types of ceramics. Earthenware is the most simple, comprised of an unrefined clay mixture. It resembles the ceramic ware used in prehistoric times and is fired at the lowest temperatures to attain solidness. Because earthenware has the least additions and is not solidified with intense heat, it tends to be porous. Quality ware of this type needs to be covered with multiple coats of glaze to ensure durable function. Even though earthenware is the simplest type of dinnerware, it is still favored for its distinct look and texture, and luxury china manufacturers have included these in their collections, though not without ensuring that it is coated diligently. The following are earthenware, that have made it to luxury retailers:

Gien Safari
Gien Pont Aux Choux

In contrast, stoneware is a more complicated form of ceramics. It is less porous, more absorbent and generally, more durable. The clay mixture can stand to be thinner though at least one coat of glaze is still needed to ensure that contents placed inside of  the dinnerware are not soaked up. Stoneware is often thought of as the perfect dinnerware that hits the balance between weight, durability and price. More often than not, it is a creamy off -white color, which can be emphasized through transparent glazes. However, the clay mixture for this dinnerware also perfectly absorbs color, allowing for finished items to be glazed with vibrant colors and designs. 

Juliska Pewter Stoneware
Juliska Quotidien White Truffle

 

Porcelain is the third type of ceramic ware. The easiest way to identify porcelain is from its bright white color and its thinness. Porcelain is valued for how elegant it can look while remaining exceptionally strong. The reason for this is the addition of kaolin to the ingredients of the clay body. Kaolin is a fine grained clay that acts as a strengthening agent. It gets its name from a village in China, that is well versed in making the finest and oldest porcelain to date. For centuries, Western counterparts tried to emulate these pieces by the addition of kaolin. Limoges porcelain, the base to many of the pieces made at Pinto Paris, Herend, Haviland and Meissen, is internationally hailed and recognized for the proper and innovative use of paste clay to create pieces such as the ones below:

Medard De Noblat Ikebana

Types of Porcelain: Bone China vs. Fine China vs. Porcelain

While the finished product looks somewhat similar, porcelain, bone china and fine china differ in very significant ways. The primary difference between fine china and porcelain is the amount of heat applied to solidify the clay boyd, with porcelain being fired at much higher temperatures (2,650 degrees Fahrenheit vs. 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit). As a result, porcelain is stronger but more brittle. Fine china is softer in comparison and is very suitable for cups and plates.

Haviland Imperator Gold

Bone china is made in a similar way to fine china, but with the addition of one very special ingredient: cow bone ashes. The addition of bone ashes gives the fired clay a warmer tone than porcelain. The color of bone china is its distinct feature and can be observed best under bright light. Dinnerware made of this material is extremely valuable since it retains many properties of porcelain (durability and elegance) but has the added touch of the warm hue on a translucent base, resulting in very unique and elegant pieces.

Royal Crown Derby Grenville

Which one is for you?

Here, the decision lies with what you need out of your dinnerware. If you are looking for pieces for everyday use, modestly designed stoneware or porcelain sets might the right option. The reason for the modest design goes beyond aesthetics, as less intricate designs have a less chance of wear over time. Even though quality ceramics (china) perfectly retain color and etchings, because the designs are made on the last layer of the coating, there is still some risk of chipping if the items are used everyday and especially, if they are not cleaned properly.

Porcelain Dinnerware Set, Blue and Gold

For guests and as display china, bone china is guaranteed to impress, though it is becoming less accessible in the US market because of the ban on using cow bone ash. English vendors such as Royal Crown Derby is one of the few manufacturers that still carries bone china.

If bone china exceeds your planned budget, fine china or porcelain can be the right fit, as long as it is of quality. The latter is determined from the amount and technique of glazing and more rarely, the additions to the clay mixture. Even though the current US market is flooded with cheaper alternative “porcelain” dinnerware, it is important to remember that a higher price tag often indicates craftsmanship and durability. It is hard to strike the chord for the perfect balance between delicate and strong with porcelain and fine china, but true craftsmen such as those from Pinto Paris, Hermes, Mottahedeh among others, have been successfully walking this thin line for decades.

Mottahedeh Pink Lace

We hope that with this guide you are able to confidently search and attain the beautiful set that can serve you during and beyond the numerous new chapters of your life.

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