Not too long ago, soon-to-be newlywed couples would register for beautiful tableware – crockery, stemware and cutlery – as part of setting up a new home together. The once popular rite of passage has all but died off, as has a general understanding of what constitutes fine tableware.

From the key quality indicators to how to make sense of interchangeable terms, this guide will offer you all the information you need for collecting, caring for and storing your tableware.

Crockery

Ceramic is the general term for all wares made from a clay-based mixture and hardened by heat. Within the world of ceramics, however, there are numerous categories of varying qualities and characteristics.


Types and materials


The three main ceramic categories are: stoneware, earthenware and porcelain.

Earthenware and stoneware

Earthenware and stoneware are certainly the more ordinary of the three but although both are opaque (porcelain is translucent), there are some differences to be aware of.

Stoneware is harder, stronger, extremely durable and more temperature-resistant than earthenware and, as such, is often used for kitchen items, such as casserole and oven dishes. It is usually much heavier than earthenware and when chipped will appear dark and gritty inside.

Sometimes used for utilitarian dinnerware, earthenware is a less precious alternative to porcelain. It can be decorative like porcelain (although not of a fine quality) and when chipped will appear white and chalky. Many cultures are well known for the decorative earthenwares they produce such as tagines and terracotta pots.

Porcelain and bone china

When it comes to luxury crockery, the only options to consider are certainly porcelain or bone china, but even these two and their qualities can vary widely.

The Penguin Dictionary of Decorative Arts describes porcelain as “a hard, translucent and, generally, white ceramic substance. There are two main types: 1. hard-paste (pâte dure) [and] 2. soft-paste (pâte tendre) porcelain.”

Hard-paste or true porcelain is distinguishable by the use of kaolin (or China clay) in its composition, along with feldspathic rock. Having been first produced in China (hence its alternate moniker) in the 7th and 8th centuries, it was finally introduced in Europe around 1709. Due to its translucency and delicacy (it can be made to be very thin), porcelain is highly valued and sought after. It is also non-porous making it suitable for food and dining use.

Limoges porcelain (used by brands Porcel and Marie Daâge) is the most respected porcelains in the world. Of this type of porcelain, Parisian designer Marie Daâge says, “The French porcelain of Limoges [which] we are using is very well known around the world [due to] its wonderful whiteness. This [whiteness] makes the quality of Limoges, thanks to kaolin which was discovered in the late 18th century in this part of France where our porcelain comes from and where our workshop with our painters is. King Louis IX of France was very proud of this when it was discovered! The kaolin also makes it very hard and strong.” 

Soft-paste porcelain first appeared in Europe in 16th century Florence as Europeans attempted to discover the secret of the East’s designs by adding extra components such as powdered glass. The most desirable soft-paste porcelain to be created was fine bone china which originated in Britain in the 18th century.

With a Royal Warrant and as a champion of fine porcelain since 1759, Wedgwood is an unchallenged expert in the field of luxury tableware. Its care guide explains, “Bone china is made with China clay, China stone and the addition of bone ash. [This] addition gives the material greater strength and translucency, meaning it can be made thinner without loss of durability.”

Fine bone china is now produced by mixing hard-paste porcelain with bone ash. (The quality of bone china is dependent on how much bone ash is included in its composition. Nothing less than 30% bone ash should be accepted.) Because of its durability – the result of a combination of hardness and density – bone china is often chosen for luxury table services. The addition of bone ash also produces its characteristically creamy white hue.

Both hard and soft-paste porcelain are fired at much higher temperatures than stoneware and earthenware giving them their translucent qualities.

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Glazes, patterns and colours


Plain white services although timeless are only one style of dishware, of course. The world of fine dining is replete with colourful, patterned and textured designs and most of these are set in some way or another by a glaze – a coating which seals and protects the designs and makes the piece non-porous. (Before any glaze is applied, ceramics are considered to have a biscuit glaze.)

“All [our] collections are completely hand-painted in France,” explains Marie, “so one can appreciate that the colour is always very alive and natural compared with the decal technique.”

A guide to ceramics produces by the Victoria and Albert museum explains, “The glaze on hard-paste porcelain is fused to the body by the high firing temperature” whereas “The glaze [of soft-paste porcelain] is fired at a lower temperature than the body and sits on it as a distinct layer.”

Special or decorative finishes can be either underglaze or overglaze. Underglaze refers to designs in which the pattern and colours are protected underneath by a glaze. Overglaze refers to pieces which are painted or embellished on top of the glaze.

Different glazes are fired at different temperatures and this, more than anything else, should determine how a dinnerware service should be cared for (see below).


Care instructions

Fine crockery should never be treated in the same manner as everyday crockery and one should always be sure to read the accompanying instructions before use. Always remove any food or liquid from the plate as soon as possible by running under the tap and wiping with a soft cleaning cloth to prevent it sticking.

The Wedgwood care guide also advises, “Abrasive materials must not be used when cleaning. Only items marked dishwasher safe can be washed in a dishwasher using recommended detergents.”

“Fine porcelain is very solid. It is ok [to use] the dishwasher as long as it is not for a daily use,” Marie suggests, “In fact, we are working with restaurants which [put] them in machines regularly but they use professional machines with nearly no powder. Good advice is to put very little washing liquid [in] – better than powder and tablets which are very bad! 

On the whole, hand washing will always be the safest option for such delicate items but, as suggested, in some cases dishwashers may be appropriate. When considering the use of a dishwasher, bear in mind the glazes of each piece. Underglaze designs can be suitably washed in the dishwasher whereas overglaze designs should not be. Any designs with precious metal rims should also never be used in the microwave.

For any crystal glassware which may accompany your dinner service, Richard Brendon suggests: “Wash your crystal by hand with warm soapy water and a soft sponge. Scouring pads or abrasive washing agents should not be used. Do not put your crystal in the dishwasher as the detergents can permanently dull or scratch the surface. Dry your crystal immediately after washing using a lint-free cloth. Do not put your crystal in a microwave or conventional oven. Do not store food or beverage in your crystal – only use your products for serving.”

The most suitable way to store dish ware is to stack with a napkin placed in between each plate. Do not slide plates over each other as this may mark the glaze.

For stemware, Richard Brendon advises: “Do not store your crystal glasses upside-down – the lip of the glass is delicate and may be damaged under the weight of the glass.” Crystal should also never be exposed to extreme temperatures.

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Flatware


Flatware, silverware, cutlery – the names are numerable, as are the distinctions between their materials.


Types and materials

Equally important to your tablescape, flatware and serveware come in a variety of options which should be carefully considered.

Stainless steel

Stainless steel is an easy upkeep and more durable (although heavier) alternative to sterling silver flatware. As Arthur Price explains, “18/10 is the finest quality stainless steel available. Arthur Price only ever uses this metal to make our cutlery, which means far greater stain and rust resistance, as well as cutlery keeping its shine for longer. The numbers refer to 18% chromium and 10% nickel content.”

Stainless steel cutlery is a popular choice for everyday dining for today’s modern lifestyle due to its resiliency (including resistance to scratching) however, it should be noted, that it is much heavier than finer cutlery.

Plated

Usually either a silver or gold plate, plated cutlery is crafted of stainless steel or nickel before being immersed in a plating vat. Through electrolysis, particles of the precious metal bond to the piece, depositing a thin layer. The quality of the plating can be determined by its thickness which is measured in microns. One millimetre of plating is made up of 1000 microns.

Sterling silver

Sterling silver cutlery is undoubtedly the finest flatware being much more lustrous and lighter than stainless steel and, therefore, it is the most expensive. Sterling silver contains 92.5% silver and 7.5% of another metal – this addition makes it stronger for utilitarian use. It will tarnish over time if not used so careful care is required during its lifetime.


Care instructions

Rinse cutlery as soon as possible to prevent natural sulphurs (such as broccoli, fish and eggs) from affecting the finishes and refrain from using washing detergents which contain lemon. Salt will corrode silver cutlery over time so make sure to empty all salt shakers or cellars in between uses.

Wedgwood suggests wiping sterling silver with a soft, dry cloth: “Do not use polishes or cleaners which may affect the coating. Do not allow to soak in water and dry fully before storing.” The V&A also warn against home remedies, particularly those containing ammonia, which “usually rely on harsh abrasives, acids or alkalis to attack tarnish”.

Gold or silver-plated cutlery should be treated in like manner although even more carefully as plated layers are thin and could be worn away as a result of vigorous cleaning.

Store special silverware carefully by wrapping your utensils in acid-free tissue to prevent discolouration. Do not wrap in plastic which retains moisture and leads to tarnishing. A 100% cotton silverware storage roll in a wooden container with protective lining or a cutlery cabinet are ideal. Include a silica gel packet to soak up any moisture.

Do not store fine cutlery in a utensils drawer and, if storing together, without wrapping each piece up individually.

Stainless steel will not tarnish and can be washed in the dishwasher but should still be stored correctly to prevent unnecessary scratching.