Read how dinnerware originated and continues to be artisan and mass-produced today. Sequential posts explain specific generic standards of quality from raw materials to finished products —entrusted by experts in renowned international dinnerware factories. I share them so you can JUDGE FOR YOURSELF.
Brand names change, styles change, prices change:
generic standards of quality for everyday home products do not change.
Early dinnerware was made of clay indigenous to a geographic area.
From the clays, glazes and decorations of Pre-Columbian, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Middle and Far East earthenware pottery— circa 3,500 B.C., historians gained insight into their cultures.
We learn how early man not only cooked food in clay; he shaped, fired and decorated clay objects from which to serve and eat food–and we appreciate—primitive man wasn’t so primitive!
Porcelain surfaced in China. The wonder is that it originated
at all—because porcelain is not found in nature. By 1,000 B.C.,
the Chinese developed stoneware by adding fusible stone to clay.
Over centuries, stoneware clays were blended with kaolin and
petuntse, a fusible form of feldspathic rock.
By the 13th Century, a formula had been perfected to produce translucent white ceramic that Marco Polo described as alla porcella –because it resembled translucent sea shells shaped like a little pig—and was forever more known as porcelain.
Intervening centuries and trade routes brought porcelain to the West. By the 17th Century, spying and poaching of talent proliferated as monarchs of European countries supported efforts to imitate Chinese porcelain.
Earthenware, low-fire porous clays ranging in color from light buff to dark sienna, were already made in Europe. Experiments to make porcelain-like products consisted of glazing earthenware with lead glazes containing tin oxides, thereby producing a white glaze to hide the color of the earthenware. Colorful designs were painted over the white glaze and diverse styles were identified by names we still use; Faience, Mailoica, Majolica and Delft.
Soft paste porcelain (pâte tendré), a mixture of white clay and ground frit (materials of glass making), but without kaolin “became the vehicle of genius in the hands of the potters at the factory at Sevres, France” wrote Curator, David McFadden.
Kaolin, the ingredient that lends hardness and whiteness
to true hard paste porcelain (pate duré) was finally located
in Europe in the 18th Century. Experiments at the royal
fortress at Meissen led to the technology of combining
kaolin with silica and feldspar (petunse was not found in
Europe) and the making of porcelain wares soon spread
Josiah Wedgwood opened a model ceramic factory in 1767. He divided factory space to enable spatial flow of production— allowing labor to become highly specialized. His factory system became a model for the mass-production of dinnerware.
Bone china, introduced by Spode in 1800, is a form of soft-paste porcelain that resembles true hard-paste porcelain but contains no kaolin. It is called bone china because 50% ground animal bone-ash is combined with clay to lower the firing temperature and increase translucency.
After the Industrial Revolution created a middle class, dining
rooms with china cabinets became the way to display culinary
skills as well as new possessions. American ladies commonly
took china painting lessons using blank porcelain wares
imported from many factories in Limoges, France.
At factories, steam power facilitated the grinding and preparation of raw materials and ‘throwing wheels’ previously dependent on wind or water mills. Kilns require intense heat (to make clay stone-like, durable and functional)—so dinnerware factories were usually located near forests. Eventually, wood heat was replaced by coal—much later by gas —and eventually, electricity.
Technical advances in uniform production and decoration coupled with global demand have made dinnerware a successful international product since the 19th Century.
At home or restaurant, we eat from diverse sizes and shapes of a hard, vitreous material that’s washed and used repeatedly—called DISHES.
We buy dishes in sets,
or by the piece,
or by the place-setting,
in retail Dinnerware Departments.
There are thousands of dinnerware patterns available today—each—only as good as the materials and methods used to make it.
Visiting several international dinnerware factories, I was amazed by the vast real estate required for the labor and capital intensive production of dinnerware. Because of the need for exact duplication of diverse shapes and sizes by the hundreds, dinnerware is mass-produced using diverse techniques that we’ll later examine.
It’s crtical to understand raw material differences
— because each kind of clay contributes different character and durability.
Many labor intensive production techniques are necessary for making diverse dinnerware shapes: each requires working with clay in different ‘wet’ stages—from ‘liquid slip to pug’.
A highlight at one factory was their final step:
inspection – rejection –destruction.
Cup or casserole—any piece not meeting standards of excellence was destroyed.
When handed a stick to participate in the destruction,— I couldn’t!
Of course we want good dinnerware
—regardless of taste and income—
but how do we know if it’s good?
Many people equate high-price with high-quality but there is no price/quality ratio. Factors impacting the price of dinnerware are country of origin, availability and cost of raw materials; skilled vs. non-skilled labor, and design, sales, distribution and promotion costs.
DINNERWARE NEEDS LABELING TRANSPARENCY.
I am cynical about everyday essentials advertising—in any media!
In addition to brand-bias, dinnerware advertising perpetuates myths.
Newspaper ads and catalogs push only color and pattern names:
most don’t even mention the name of the kind of clay.
Many retailers have advertised dishes made of ‘chip-resistant white clay’
—a specious phrase to create an impression of durability—
and meaningless because the specific kind of clay is not given.
ALL DISHES CHIP:
because each kind of clay has a different tolerance of durability.
Currently, because of rising labor and raw material costs, many prestigious dinnerware manufacturers have merged with– or been acquired not only by other dinnerware companies; but also by glass and flatware companies.
Many international dinnerware brand-manufacturers outsource production to save labor, manufacturing and marketing costs. Many designer and store brands of dinnerware are produced this way.
Once you can judge the quality of dinnerware for yourself.
Perhaps you’ll fall in love with your grandmother’s china.
PAT BREEN: EYEWITNESS TO QUALITY