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NUTS & BOLTS

No Bone About It, This Stuff Is Tough

April 10, 1993|PATRICK MOTT

It always makes me happy when I hear about the occasional Barnumesque promotional stunt the Wedgwood china people pull. It shows that they're not above a little old-fashioned, gee-whiz drum beating, and I like it for the same reason I like the Ginsu knife commercials, the ones where they saw cans in half and pound a paring knife through a nail.

The Wedgwood stunt involves lowering a car onto four Wedgwood china after-dinner cups that are placed under each wheel. The rubes in the crowd expect the car to crush the tiny, delicate cups to powder but--surprise!--the cups actually support that entire huge car.

The results of the latest cup-and-car trick are currently on display at I. Magnin in Newport Beach's Fashion Island, where the cups are holding up a brand-new Jaguar XJ12.

And, just as the Ginsu commercial makes me want to reach for my credit card, so the Wedgwood gimmick makes me want to go out and invest in a pile of fine china, just to see if the trick also works on a car made by GM. Just what, I always wonder, makes good china such a big deal?

First of all, it has a history. China is a type of porcelain, and porcelain was being fashioned into pottery and other useful items in China as far back as the Tang Dynasty, around AD 600. It was a mixture of white clay and feldspar fired at extremely high temperatures, and it was noted for its strength and beauty.

It wasn't until around 1800, however, that what has come to be known as fine bone china was perfected in Europe. Josiah Spode--still a familiar name in china circles--produced a kind of porcelain that involved adding powdered bone to the familiar hard-paste china formula. The result was unusually smooth, even and translucent, and resisted the tendency of non-bone china to chip.

Since that time, bone china--and its close cousins porcelain and earthenware (also called ironstone)--have seen regular use on tables throughout the world. But, as always, it pays to know your types of porcelain and what you can expect from them.

EARTHENWARE

As the name implies, this is the rough-hewn member of the porcelain family. Jean Bearden, the owner of Almost & Perfect English China, a shop in Costa Mesa, said that earthenware is often massive, porous and used for "everyday dinnerware." If food is to be served on it, she emphasized that the dishes should be well glazed to prevent lead in the clay material from leaching into the food.

The price of an earthenware place setting, said Bearden, can typically range from around $40 to $150.

PORCELAIN

In the middle ground in both durability and beauty. It does not chip or crack nearly as easily as earthenware, said Bearden, but does not offer the same delicacy of finish of bone china.

The famous Wedgwood jasperware falls into this category. It is a specific type of unfinished, unglazed porcelain, and as such is not used to serve food. It is common in personal or gift items such as jewelry boxes.

A place setting of glazed porcelain, said Bearden, can cost roughly between $65 and $500 depending on the maker and the intricacy of decoration.

BONE CHINA

The good stuff, and generally reserved specifically for place settings, according to Laura Andert, the manager of R.S.V.P., a china and tabletop accessories store in Tustin. The feel of bone china, she said, should be smooth, silky and even, and it should have a finely translucent quality, which comes as a result of the bone content. And, as the Jag-on-the-cups routine proves, it's also extremely durable and resistant to chipping.

You're going to pay for it though. A good bone china place setting can run from around $100 to $1,200, Bearden said.

Apart from these fairly standard characteristics, there are a few other things to watch for. First-time buyers of fine bone china, said Andert, may want to consider more conservative patterns and stay away from the more gaudy or faddish designs offered by some makers. The payoff, she said, lies in being able to add to the collection later, since most patterns of long standing figure to remain in circulation.

However, even if you don't lower your car precisely onto the four teacups, and one breaks, it's likely you'll be able to order a replacement even if the manufacturer has discontinued the pattern, Bearden said. China replacement companies, most located on the East Coast, advertise regularly in the back of many women's magazines, and their specific function is to stock out-of-circulation patterns.

Handling tips from both Bearden and Andert: Don't put your fine bone china in the dishwasher (unless it's declared dishwasher safe) and if it's trimmed in silver or gold, don't put it in the microwave unless you want fireworks with your meal. Common sense, they say, will dictate the best use.

So what is that Jag doing sitting on top of those after-dinner cups?

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