Ceramics Primer

By Paula Kirwan


Often, when strolling through GasLamp or GasLamp Too, I see a dish or a figurine that is appealing and intriguing. One of the first things I do is to turn it over to get information about the piece. I look for a back mark that identifies the manufacturer and country of origin, but many times I also see an additional term such as “porcelain,” “ironstone” or “bone china.”  The question is, what do those terms really mean?


On a broad scale, the word “ceramics” describes items made from clay and minerals dug from the earth, mixed in various formulas with water and sometimes organic materials, then shaped, decorated and heated to a durable hardness. They do, however, differ in certain methods of production, as well as in looks and durability.  


Porcelain is made from a mixture that includes kaolin clay, which is white in color and is an important ingredient in making fine ceramics. Porcelain is fired in a kiln at a very high temperature until it becomes vitrified (glass-like). It is distinguished from all other ceramics by its hardness and resilience. In addition, its glassy quality gives porcelain two of its most cherished qualities:  its resonance it “rings” when tapped and its translucence. Rosenthal, Lladro, Royal Doulton and Limoges are very collectible porcelain pieces. (See example, above right: A porcelain inkwell from a Limoges hand-painted desk set).


Bone china is lightweight and lustrous. From a double-fired blend of porcelain and up to 50 percent of animal bone ash, bone china boasts a slightly translucent milky-white tone and a delicate, refined look. Bone china cups and saucers are highly collectible, and Aynsley, Royal Albert and Royal Stafford are among the manufacturers that collectors seek. (See example, left: A set of Royal Albert china).


Ironstone is highly durable and was developed as a less expensive alternative to porcelain. In addition to some of the traditional materials required to manufacture most ceramics, it contains iron slag.  Ironstone has a more casual finish and is perfect for everyday use. One of the most recognizable examples of ironstone is Homer Laughlin’s popular Fiesta dinnerware. Johnson Brothers, Staffordshire, Buffalo Pottery and Meakin pieces are popular collectibles.


Stoneware, like porcelain, is fired at high temperature, making it hardy, impermeable and great for everyday use. This ceramic is characterized by its solid heft, which makes it incredibly hard.  It is often glazed for a long-lasting sheen. Red Wing and McCoy are among the popular collectibles. (See examples, right: a yellow Red Wing compote from the Prismatique collection and a group of McCoy planters).


Earthenware is one of the oldest industrial materials and it remains quite popular.  Because it is porous, it must be glazed in order to be waterproof.  It has a hefty weight and a homespun feel, but is somewhat less durable than other ceramics, making old earthenware bake ware a bit rare because of breakage from frequent usage. Majolica, Franciscan, Bennington Potters and Royal Stafford are sought after earthenware collectibles. (See example, below left: Two begonia leaf plates from Majolica).


When you see a piece of ceramic you are interested in purchasing, be sure to look it over carefully to check for cracks and chips.  When you’re satisfied with its condition, all that’s left is to get it and enjoy! 







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