Aside from aspiring to be smarter than all your friends, why worry about the difference in fine china, porcelain, and plain old dinnerware? The most basic reason is to choose the right set of dishes, or two, for use in your home, whether you're buying them at an antique shop or registering for your wedding. Secondly, if you inherit a set or find one for a song at a garage sale, you'll want to know how to care for your new-to-you dishes properly.
Learn about what distinguishes fine china from porcelain, and how those differ from everyday dinnerware.
How Do Fine China, Porcelain, and Bone China Differ?
In days gone by, most brides would register for a china pattern. In the broad sense, china (especially in the United States) refers to the "good" dishes. These are the pretty place settings reserved for special occasions and holidays in most homes. This type of set can be passed from generation to generation. That's not to say that some couples don't register for dinnerware these days, but the percentage picking a fancy pattern is far less now than in decades past. They either forego the fussiness, preferring a more casual lifestyle or enjoy taking over as the caretaker of grandma's fine china when she no longer has a use for it.
But what's the difference in china and porcelain? As it turns out, they're the same thing, according to Noritake: "Many people are confused as to the difference between 'china' and 'porcelain.' The two terms describe the same product. The term 'china' comes from its country of origin, and the word 'porcelain' comes from the Latin word 'porcella,' meaning seashell. It implies a product which is smooth, white, and lustrous."
The first porcelain used for vessels was made of kaolin clay combined with granite in China—hence the familiar name—many centuries ago. It wasn't until the early 1700s that hard-paste porcelain akin to modern wares was made in Germany by combining clay with feldspar. Around 1770 kaolin clay was found in Cornwall, England, and the British began making porcelain as well. No matter where it is (or was) made, porcelain wares are all fired at a high temperature.
What Is Kaolin Clay?
Kaolin clay is a soft white clay that's primarily composed of a mineral called kaolinite. It is found naturally in soils around the world and is used for making ceramics, paper, paints, and more.
Then you have bone china, which has an added ingredient and different firing temperature. The English made ceramics lighter in weight, more translucent, and stronger by adding ground bone ash from farm animals to wet kaolin clay in the late 1700s, according to Antiques 101 by Frank Farmer Loomis IV. They were also able to fire the pieces at a lower temperature by adding that bone ash to their clay composition. Spode, the entity that first made this type of soft china, was one of the factories operating in England back then. Other factories making bone china by the mid-1800s were Coalport, Wedgwood, Worcester, and along with many others. Bone china is usually not as white as porcelain.
So, if you prefer fine dinnerware with a heavy feel, go with fine hard-paste porcelain, also known as china. If you like a lighter translucent look and touch, put together a set of bone china. Either will be a beautiful addition to your table.
Dinnerware incorporates all types of dishes, including bone china and porcelain. But there are many types of plates, bowls, cups, and saucers made of other substances including stoneware, pottery, and even plastics like Melamine. Most of these are dishwasher safe, and many sets have matching serving pieces just like fine china, making them ideal for everyday use.
Families with kids often opt for plastic dinnerware when they are little since it is the most durable type available. It may crack if you drop it on a hard surface, or scratch with daily utensil use, but is more child-friendly overall. Kicking it up a notch to a nicer everyday stoneware or pottery pattern as children grow up is always an option.
Choosing a casual dinnerware pattern can often be more affordable than using fancy china for everyday meals. That's not always true, however. When selecting a vintage pattern, you'll find that some Mid-Century dishware sets will cost as much to complete piece by piece as a set of fine porcelain or bone china.
You'll even find casual dinnerware made of glass. However, most glass (including old Depression glass) will become permanently etched by abrasive dishwasher detergents with repeated washing. This cloudiness is called "sickness" in collecting circles, and it can't be removed. Any glass in your cupboard, old or new, should be hand washed to keep it looking shiny and clear.
Loomis, Frank Farmer IV. Antiques 101: A Crash Course in Everything Antique. Krause Publications, 2005