It’s a Fine Time for Fine China

Condensed from the New York Times, February, 2022
by Gail Willette-McPeak, Wenona Questers #1437

More dining at home has led some people to seek out fancier tableware that makes everyday meals feel far more celebratory.

Fine china — the delicate, sometimes fussy tableware long associated with wedding registries and your grandmother’s cabinet — has found a new, more relaxed place at the table. Whether a Herend soup dish adorned with a wild boar or a gilded Lenox dessert plate rimmed with a Greek key pattern, fans of using fine china, which is usually made with porcelain, say it makes everyday meals far more celebratory than the minimalist earthenware popular in the past few years ever could. Plates they had been saving, they now use every day — why not use things that make you happy on a day-to-day basis?

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First made in China, porcelain’s earliest form dates back to the Tang dynasty. Hard-paste porcelain, the kind used to this day, appeared there later, in the 13th century. Revered for its translucent quality, hard-paste porcelain was originally made from a mixture of kaolin, a soft white clay, and feldspathic rock fired at a temperature around 2,650 degrees Fahrenheit — a recipe that European potters obsessively tried and failed to master. By the 18th century, German alchemist Johann Friedrich Böttger discovered the formula, and hard-paste porcelain began being manufactured in Europe as well as in Asia.

Porcelain has also inspired china collectors, including Rachel Tashjian, a fashion critic in Brooklyn, who began amassing porcelain pieces after receiving a set of Haviland china from her grandmother. “There’s a sense that this is something you can learn about, and there’s a scholarship to it,” she said. “People want to be frivolous in small ways,” she said. “We’re beginning to put a premium on delight.”

She has used her Haviland plates, which are decorated with a pink and gold rose pattern, when hosting dinner parties with friends. “I would make spaghetti or just order pizza, but using the china would create a sense of occasion beyond ‘let’s all hang and drink together or watch a movie.’”

Michele Mirisola, an artist in Brooklyn who owns a set of gilded Homer Laughlin plates, agrees that “if you’re not partying as much in restaurants and bars” fine china is “a way to class up what you’re doing at home.”

According to Dayna Isom Johnson, a trend expert at Etsy, there was a 39 percent increase in searches for fine china on the site in 2021 compared to 2020, and a 28 percent increase in searches for antique and vintage porcelain dinnerware.

Dawn Block, the vice president of collectibles, electronics and home at eBay, said that site has seen a similar increase. “Since this time last year, eBay has seen a significant surge in searches and sales for china and porcelain brands including Lenox, Noritake and Herend,” she said.

China from heritage brands is also making its way onto more wedding registries. Lauren Kay, the executive editor of The Knot, a wedding resource website that allows couples to create registries, said that site users’ interest in makers including Bernardaud, Royal Copenhagen, Wedgwood and Richard Ginori is at a high she hasn’t seen since 2018.

“There are more young people coming in and being excited, saying, ‘Now is the time, I’m bored and I want to set the table,’” said Elise Abrams, who owns an antiques store in Great Barrington, Mass.

There has also been an increased appetite for fine china at some secondhand shops. At Vintage Thrift Shop in Manhattan, Lisa Haspel, the store’s manager, has also noticed a growing interest in its china inventory, which typically features pieces by brands including Rosenthal, Limoges, Wedgwood, Minton and Spode. Her customers used to be older but that has changed, she said. “Now it just sells to everybody,” said Ms. Haspel. “It’s very popular.”

Of course, for some, using fine china casually has long been a part of daily life. Maryline Damour, an interior designer who lives in Kingston, N.Y., grew up in Haiti and said that it was customary for her family to set two formal tables a day. She has continued this ritual, using china taken from her mother’s home in Haiti, as well as pieces bought at antiques stores in Kingston.

“I’ve never saved stuff for special occasions,” said Ms. Damour. “I have English china, like Wedgwood and Royal Doulton. It’s just what I have, so I use it all the time.”