Porcelain is one of the most beautiful members of the ceramics family, and can be identified by its glassy finish and translucence. Its pure whiteness, durability, and glasslike nature have made it a wonderful material for everything from electrical insulation and kitchen and bath fixtures to elaborately decorated Meissen plates, Ming vases, and Royal Doulton figurines.
What Is Porcelain?
As with all pottery, porcelain is based on clay, specifically, a white clay mineral, kaolin. Being based on kaolin is what gives it the deep translucence that makes it so appealing and special. Porcelain developed in China nearly 2,000 years ago and became an expensive and desirable trade good in Europe as early as the Renaissance, and is why we often call it “china.” By the early 18th century, Europeans began making their own, with early centers of production in England and Germany.
Porcelain comes in three types, depending on its composition:
Strong, hard, and very translucent, hard paste porcelain is made from a paste of alabaster (later feldspar and quartz) and kaolin.
Combining kaolin with a glassy ceramic material called “frit” produces soft paste porcelain which was created in Europe in an attempt to replicate Chinese porcelain, and is less glassy.
As you might guess from the name, bone china is produced with a mixture of kaolin and bone ash, producing the hardest, whitest porcelain.
Using Your Collection
So you’ve found some beautiful pieces at the antique store. Can you use them? Short answer: it’s up to you. Longer answer: rarer, more unique, or older pieces may hold substantial value and you may prefer to preserve them rather than risk them with daily use. Newer pieces or reproductions should be fine for everything from dining to dishwasher. Older pieces may also have lead in decorations and glazes, so it’s best to use them decoratively rather than for mealtimes.
Porcelain’s beauty and strength have made it popular for centuries. This means there are countless famous and collectible makers and types to choose from. A few very well-known names are:
- Numerous Chinese dynasties such as Ming and Qing
- Royal Doulton
Both elegant and eye-catching, porcelain is one of the most beautiful types of ceramics. Knowing a little more about it makes it more fun to browse in your favorite antique store!