- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 6, 2002

Formality is back in fashion, says Irv Losman, owner of Tiara Galleries and Gifts in Rockville. Mr. Losman, who sells Herend china, a sophisticated porcelain made in Hungary, says he has seen a growing interest in returning to simple values, such as eating dinner with family. As an outgrowth of this sentiment, he says people have been investing in sets of china as a way to stay close to home, especially during the recent tumultuous times.

"Something happens when you dress up a table and eat slowly," Mr. Losman says. "You keep your elbows down, and you're on your best behavior. You are focused and sitting up straight, recognizing the value of good conversation."

Although bone china and porcelain are considered the traditional forms of china, today "china" is generically used to refer to bone china, porcelain, earthenware and stoneware. Depending on individual tastes, consumers choose what best fits their needs. Each variety is made through slightly different methods and varies in value depending on its manufacturer, age and condition.

Joseph Diciacco, national marketing director of Carico International in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., says the most important information any first-time buyer of bone china or porcelain should know is that it is more than a monetary investment. It usually will be a family heirloom.

"It has a sentimental value," he says. "Each piece is almost like a work of art."

When customers buy bone china or porcelain, Mr. Diciacco says, they should consider choosing a simple pattern that will remain in vogue for many years. He says buying a simpler pattern is a safer route than spending money on the latest trend.

Some buyers may want to collect their set piece by piece, but Mr. Diciacco suggests buying all the components at once, or at least the basic items companies may discontinue a line when it is least expected.

Closely inspecting prospective merchandise before buying it is also important, Mr. Diciacco says. If the pattern includes platinum or gold edges, make sure the metal rolls over the edges for a more luxurious look. Make sure the bottom rims of the coffee cups are smooth so that they will not scratch the saucer's design, and check for a consistency in the clay when studying the plates.

"Look for china free of blemishes, pimples, dimples and pockets of air," he says. "It's a higher perceived value."

Coordinating the china pattern with crystal is also a good idea, Mr. Diciacco says. A green or blue design can be complemented by the appropriate color of crystal, not simply a neutral tone, offering a more gracious table.

The elegance of bone china or porcelain is maintained through meticulous care, Mr. Diciacco says. Hand washing is the safest way to clean the items, and using a plastic basin to protect the pieces from chipping against metal sinks is a good idea. Overloading the sink with dishes will certainly cause damage, especially if they are left in the sink for a long period of time, he says.

Mild liquid detergents are the best choice. Abrasive cleaners should be avoided. If the dishwasher is used and it is not recommended use a detergent without lemon or other acidic agents. Sometimes, those products eat away the surface of the dishes. Also, make sure to hand rinse the items after using the dishwasher to remove all soap. Never allow the china to run through a high heat drying cycle; the items could break or crack from dryness.

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Carico International specializes in porcelain, but Mr. Diciacco says its product competes with many manufacturers of the higher-quality bone china. Bone china, which has a similar mixture to porcelain china, is made primarily from china clay and calcified animal bone ash. The ash usually makes up from 25 percent to 50 percent of the total mixture and is added to the clay to give the china greater strength. It also provides a bright white appearance and a translucent quality when held up to light.

Other ingredients in the recipe for bone china include silica, alumina, alkalies and lime. The mixture is fired at high temperatures, from 2,300 to 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit. Even though it may look durable, it is not designed as a cookware product and is usually more delicate and thinner than porcelain. Both bone china and porcelain are vitrified, however, which means they are waterproof and nonporous.

Porcelain, which is an ivory, chip-resistant form of china, is fired at temperatures from 1,600 to 2,300 degrees. It usually is made from a combination of china clay, china stone and flint. When shaped thinly enough, it also is translucent.

Earthenware, which is traditionally not considered upscale china, is much less expensive than porcelain or bone china. Many modern stores, however, do include the product in their china departments.

Earthenware has a softer body and is not as durable as bone china or porcelain. It is usually made from potash, sand, feldspar and clay, with a tendency to have many impurities. It is often as thin as bone china, but not translucent, and it frequently chips. After being decorated and glazed with a clear coat, it is usually fired at about 900 degrees, a lower firing temperature that is ideal when using vivid colors.

Stoneware, which is similar to earthenware, is made with coarser, chip-resistant clays. Like earthenware, it is not translucent. After being fired at about 2,500 degrees, it can be decorated with colored glazes with an optional clear glaze coating and refired. It is popular with casual patterns and has the look of handmade pottery.

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Some of the most highly skilled craftsmen of all types of dinnerware are found in England's pottery district. Paul Wood, managing director of Spode in Stoke-on-Trent, England, says he delights in the quality of the company's products. Spode, founded by Josiah Spode in 1770, specializes in bone china and imperialware, which is a form of upscale earthenware that is fired at 2,100 degrees.

As one of the oldest of the British manufacturers, Spode perfected the process for underglaze printing on earthenware and created the formula for bone china that is used today. Its sister company, Royal Worcester in Worcester, England, makes porcelain.

"Cheap plates look good for five minutes," Mr. Wood says. "Our products you will see in museums after 200 years."

Since not everyone's budget lends itself to buying timeless china, however, Dani Offen, store manager of Crate and Barrel in Arlington, says people with average incomes can still buy bone china and porcelain.

She says the difference between high-end products and those sold at stores such as Crate and Barrel is the quality of the clay used. Trim of gold and other fine metals also increases the price of more expensive china. She says customers frequently will buy an inexpensive first set of dishes, with the intentions of buying high-end products when their finances allow. The bone china at Crate and Barrel costs about $79.95 per five-piece place setting, while a five-piece place setting from Spode could cost as much as $827.

"Everybody is looking for something they can use every day," Ms. Offen says. "If you have kids, you have to take that into consideration. You don't want them to take [expensive plates] and throw them on the floor."

Whether high-end or low-end products grace the table, Liam Sullivan, spokesman at Replacements in Greensboro, N.C., says broken pieces can be replaced by the service, which finds additional components to sets that stores have discontinued.

Replacements houses the world's largest collection of china, crystal and silver, he says, with 9 million pieces stored in the warehouse. About 175,000 patterns have been gathered from various time periods.

Older patterns are worth more, Mr. Sullivan says, because manufacturers usually made less of the product. Since the china was most likely made by hand, he says it also has a higher level of craftsmanship than newer china, which is sometimes made by machines. The backstamp on the bottom of the china reveals the manufacturer and its year of production.

Finding a missing piece can become especially important during the holidays when many people are entertaining guests and relatives, Mr. Sullivan says. Even during nonholiday seasons, having a complete set of china symbolizes a commitment to family for many people.

"We are sort of coming out of the fast food generation that we have been in for a long time," he says. "People are putting more value on their families and having a nice dinner on Sunday and having people over for the holidays."


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