Defining China

Beginning china collectors often notice only the style of a piece or the colorful details of a particular pattern. As their interest grows deeper, they begin to examine how well a piece is molded and look and feel of the body under the glaze. Is it heavy? Is it translucent when held to the light? Labels sometimes only serve to confuse: Is a piece of German porcelain better than a similar English dish made of bone china? What is ironstone? Is semi-china pottery or porcelain? And what is the difference between faience and majolica?

Ever since prehistoric times humans have used some form of ceramic. Thousands of years after the first pot was shaped from clay and baked in the sun, the Chinese perfected porcelain by using kaolin, a white clay, mixing it with china stone and firing it at high temperatures. That was in the 10th century and it took another 800 years before true porcelain was developed in Europe.

Johann Frederick Bottger, with the liberal backing of Augustus the Strong, ruler of Saxony, finally developed true porcelain in 1708. Meissen, the factory founded 2 years later, still stands preeminent in the field of European porcelain, although many other factories eventually produced lovely wares.

In England only a few factories made true porcelain in the Oriental manner. Many others developed beautiful and costly wares in soft paste, using ground glass or frit in place of china stone. Chelsea and Bow as well as early French Sevres porcelain wares are all soft paste and eagerly sought today.

Most china is decorated and glazed before firing, and often other decorations are added overglaze. G. Bernard Hughes in The Collector's Pocket Book of China provides some concise definitions of the various terms you're liable to encounter in your search for the perfect piece of china:

Porcelain, hard paste- Made from white china clay or kaolin (the plastic infusable ingredient) and fusible felspathic china stone which provides translucence. When fired at great heat, these ingredients fuse to become a vitreous white surface, entirely hard and ringing with a metallic note when lightly struck. Often called true porcelain, this is the type developed by the Chinese during the Sung dynasty and emulated by Meissen.

Porcelain, soft paste- Made from white china clay and a vitreous frit that produced translucence. Nearly all 18th century English porcelain is of type. Firing is at a high temperature but not as great of that of hard paste  porcelain, and the body is more liable to breakage.

Bone china- A paste intermediate between hard porcelain and soft paste porcelain; a combination of clay and china stone made white and strong by the addition of calcified bone. Josiah Spode first marketed this product in 1794. Of fine texture and color, it gave enduring service at a cost far lower than that of fragile soft paste porcelain, and quickly replaced it in the English market.

Earthenware- Opaque ware which is porous after the first firing and must be glazed before it can be applied for domestic use.

Ironstone china- A hard durable earthenware fired at a high heat. Variations are red and brown stoneware and Wedgwood's black basalt.

Creamware- A mixture similar to ironstone of refined clay and flint but fired at a less intense heat. When a clear glaze was evolved that could be applied as a liquid dip, the resulting cream colored earthenware became immediately popular. Wedgwood and Leeds are the names primarily associated with early creamware.

Jasperware- A dense vitrified stoneware of nearly the same properties as porcelain, developed in 1774 by Josiah Wedgwood and still produced today. Adams and Turner also produced jasperware.

Majolica- A general term for a variety of ceramics decorated with an opaque tin glaze, usually brightly colored. In England in 1851, Herbert Minton developed a cane colored stoneware molded or pressed in high relief with details clear and sharp. The body was then dipped into tin enamel and fired. The final result began a Victorian craze for the brightly colored pieces that continues today.

Faience- Lightly fired earthenware that is painted, then covered with a glaze of tin oxide. When fired the glaze produces an opaque, white surface. Similar in look to majolica, faience flourished in French potteries during the 17th and 18th centuries. Trade declined after the French Revolution, when lighter, cheaper, and less fragile English pottery flooded the market.

Delft- Similar to faience and majolica in that it is a tin glazed earthenware, Delft was produced in Holland in the early 1600s to imitate Chinese porcelain. Designs, mainly in blue were at first Oriental in nature and later expanded to include Dutch subjects such as windmills. Shortly after its introduction, England began to produced Delft Ware, examples of which are now rare and very costly. Production of tin enamel glazed wares declined after 1790 when Wedgwood introduced creamware.

The United States has a relatively short history of china development. With rare, short lived exceptions, almost no fine china was produced until the 19th century. Most dinnerware- fine or utilitarian- came from the prolific factories of England or was shipped from China. Chinese Export or China Trade porcelain produced specifically for the US can be found in many museums and a few lucky households.

First-hand knowledge is the best way to learn about china types. Visit antique stores and examine various examples. Feel the difference in weight and look at the way the pieces are made. Also read all you can about factories or types of china that interest you. A good general purpose book is Warman's English & Continental Pottery & Porcelain, though there are a number of others. -Barbara Williams SackettBarbara Williams Sackett

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