The word ceramic was derived from the greek word ‘Keramos’ meaning ‘earthen vessel’. The word has now been applied to a wide range of products from terracotta to the finest bone china. Dinnerware and tableware are just two of the categories often used by stores to describe the end use of this range of ceramics.
For the discerning shopper selection of dinnerware is primarily based around fashion. In today’s fast moving world, where casual dining has become the norm, our dinnerware often reflects our taste in food or the environment in which we use it. For example Mexican food might well be served in brightly coloured dishes decorated with peppers, spices and other vegetables reflecting the type of food we might eat..
However the technical features of the dinnerware are much harder to identify. First what type of ceramic is it we are buying? Is it terracotta,earthenware,stoneware, porcelain or bone china? Often it just says china on the box but this means nothing as it is just another broad term implying it is a ceramic! But we already know that!
So just how do we identify the different types of pottery? One way is to look at the colour of the body under the shiny glaze. The best place to do this is under the foot of the item as this is often unglazed. In order of pure whiteness the following is a generalised guide to the colour.
Terracotta bright red to red brown body colour
Stoneware pale brown to buff colour
Earthenware ivory to off white
Porcelain off white to blue white
Bone China creamy pure white
Porcelain and bone china can be more easily differentiated from the rest by their translucency. This means that they let light transmit through the piece. If you hold a delicate piece of bone china or porcelain up to the light, and wave your hand between the plate and the light, you can see a shadow of your hand through the piece.
So now we know what type of dinnerware we are buying-what does it mean? Firstly it is a guide to the strength of the piece and means resistance to chipping,cracking and breakage. Secondly it is a guide to the cost. High quality bone china and porcelain manufacturers use highly refined materials and processes to ‘design in’ the whiteness,translucency and strength required by consumers. Consequently the cost is higher. However because of the inherent strength you might expect this type of pottery to last longer in use!
As in life things are never quite so simple. The manufacturers of other types of dinnerware (terracotta,stoneware,and earthenware) compensate for their lack of inherent strength by making chunkier pieces. All types of ware can be highly decorated with colour so this is not the differentiator. So the shopper has a choice of chunkier less white designs or whiter more delicate designs!
The chemical resistance to acids and washing detergents is also worth considering. Generally higher fired glazed tableware such as porcelain and stoneware have a higher intrinsic chemical durability and are ‘unleaded’ but this is not always the case.Top brands now indicate their testing to BS or FDA standards and indicate their quality by labelling with ‘dishwasher safe’ and ‘unleaded’ or ‘lead-free’. The astute shopper therefore needs to look for these labels in determining value for money.
In summary,shopping for dinnerware can be an enjoyable experience! Armed with a little technical knowledge the it can be so much easier! Give at least equal weighting to to the technical performance as to the fashionable design in choosing your ceramic tableware.