If you've inherited or purchased some pieces of antique china, it helps to know the process for learning more about your treasures. Often, the piece holds many clues, and understanding how to read these can help you identify the pattern. From that, you can get a sense of your china's value and history.
Figure Out the Type of China
Before you can identify the pattern, you need to figure out what kind of china you have. Because porcelain production originated in China, Europeans and Americans used the term "china" to describe any fine porcelain piece. However, there are actually several different kinds of china, each of which uses a specific production process. Since many manufacturers specialized in a single type of china, this can help narrow down the possibilities for your china pattern.
Three Types of Porcelain
According to Collector's Weekly, there are three main types of porcelain, all of which are commonly called "china:"
- Bone china - Bone china originated in England around 1750. There, factories like Spode and Royal Worcester, used bone china to make tea sets, vases, dinnerware, and other items. As the name implies, bone china involves the addition of bone ash to a mixture of finely ground stone and clay. The process results in pieces that are incredibly thin and translucent.
- Hard-paste porcelain - Hard-paste porcelain was the original type produced in China, and it is a major fixture in antique Chinese art. According to the Bow Porcelain Factory, this type of china originally included a clay called kaolin, as well as ground alabaster. Today, it often includes quartz. The first European factory to produce hard-paste porcelain was Meissen, a German company that began production in 1710.
- Soft-paste porcelain - European potteries came up with a recipe for porcelain that did not involve kaolin clay from China. Instead, this softer type of china involved local clays, most notably clay from the Limoges region of France.
Tips for Determining Type
Use these tricks to help you figure out what kind of china you have:
- Hold the china up to the light. According to Noritake, bone china will be significantly more translucent than other types of porcelain. If you can see a lot of light coming through the piece, you most likely have china with bone ash in it.
- Examine the color. Noritake also notes that the color of bone china tends to be more ivory than white. If your piece is pure white, it is more likely to be hard or soft porcelain.
- Listen to the piece. According to Collector's Weekly, you can tell the difference between hard and soft-paste porcelain by holding the item with your fingertips and lightly tapping the edge with a coin. If it makes a high-pitched tone, it's more likely to be hard-paste.
Look for a Backstamp
Most fine china features an identification mark that helps to identify the manufacturer of the piece. Knowing this information is important for identifying the pattern. In many cases, there may be more than one stamp on an item, sometimes indicating where the piece was manufactured and where it was painted and glazed. Additionally, backstamps offer insight into the date of a piece, since most manufacturers changed stamps every few years.
How to Find the Backstamp
In most cases, finding the backstamp is easy. Simply turn the piece over and look on the bottom or back. You'll usually see symbols and writing, and sometimes, there will be a raised design.
It can help to use a magnifying glass to enlarge the stamp. You can also take a digital photo and then use your computer to enlarge the image.
How to Use the Backstamp
Once you've found the backstamp, use a website with a library of stamps and manufacturers to learn about your piece. The following sites can help:
- Kovels - One of the most respected names in antiques, Kovels has a complete library of backstamps. You can search by the shape of the mark, initials in the mark, or words and full names.
- Gotheborg.com - If you have Chinese porcelain, this is the site to use to find out about your backstamp. It features photographs of the marks and information about the manufacturers.
What If There Isn't a Backstamp?
While most fine china features identification marks, you may find that some very early pieces do not have backstamps. According to ThePotteries.org, a website by potter and history expert Steve Birks, this was quite common with early bone china. If your piece doesn't have a backstamp, consider taking it to a professional appraiser to learn more about the pattern.
Note Important Details
Once you know the manufacturer and the type of china, you have most of the information you'll need to find the pattern name or number. However, many manufacturers made dozens, or even hundreds, of different patterns. To save time and avoid having to sift through the entire product catalog for your manufacturer, take note of some of the most important details in your pattern.
Gold, or gilt, edging is one of the first things you'll notice when you look at some china patterns. Some manufacturers, such as Noritake, are famous for pieces with this luxurious detail. Typically, this beautiful gilt paint is applied to the edges of plates, cups, bowls, and other pieces. Depending on how the piece has been preserved and the age of the item, the gilt edge may be worn or spotted.
While many pieces are white or ivory, there are also a number of china patterns that feature a background or much of the decoration in another color. Some shades you may see include black, pink, red, blue, and gold. Often, the back or underside of these pieces is white.
Other Paint Colors Used
Also note any other significant colors in the design. Does it have a black edge or a decoration of fuchsia flowers? These details will help you figure out the name or number of the pattern.
Finally, note any specific images in the pattern. Consider some of the following:
- Flower species
- Asian motifs
- Ladies or images of people
- Animals or birds
Establish a Pattern
If you know the manufacturer and type of china and have taken some time to note the details on your piece, you're ready to figure out the pattern number or name. A great place to start is Replacements.com. This site sells replacement pieces for many patterns, and they have an extensive library of patterns with photos. Click on the manufacturer name to see a list of patterns.
You can also look up patterns on manufacturer-specific sites:
- National Shelley China Club - This is a great place to identify a piece of Shelley china, including the pattern name and the date.
- Meissen China Patterns - If you have a piece of Meissen china, you can find many of the most popular patterns here.
- Robbin's Nest Noritake Directory - You can find almost every Noritake pattern made, along with photos, on this site.
- The Spode Collection - Although this site doesn't offer photos of every Spode pattern, you can find many of them here. In addition, the museum will help your identify any Spode piece for a nominal fee.
- Haviland Online - This site offers photos and tips for identifying Haviland china.
Dating Your China Pattern
Dating is an important part of identification. In many cases, patterns have been in continuous production for decades or even centuries. This means that you might not be able to narrow down the date range for your piece simply by identifying its pattern. Instead, you'll need to use the backstamp to help you. Here's how:
- After you have identified your pattern and its manufacturer, visit one of the backstamp identification websites like those listed above.
- Use a magnifying glass to really examine the details of the mark and compare it to the stamps used at various points by the manufacturer.
- When you find a match, you have a date range for your piece.
Do You Have a Popular Pattern?
Certain china patterns stand the test of time and remain popular with collectors for centuries. According to House Beautiful, the following patterns are especially desirable:
- Blue Italian - This iconic transferware pattern features scenes of Italy. The detailed images are printed in blue on a white background. This pattern has been in continuous production since 1816.
- Meissen's Ming Dragon - Since the middle of the 18th century, Meissen has been making this Asian-inspired pattern. It usually features a persimmon-colored Chinese dragon on a white background and has gold edging. Sometimes, the dragon is painted in other colors, such as green.
- Royal Copenhagen's Flora Danica - This detailed pattern was based on botanical art from the 1790s. It is one of the most collectible and costly china patterns in existence.
- Deruta's Raffaellesco - Introduced the 1600s, this finely detailed, multi-colored pattern has enjoyed great popularity for centuries. Floral motifs and gold dragons adorn this white porcelain design.
Beautiful and Valuable
Whether you have a popular pattern or a rare gem from the past, antique china is a beautiful and valuable part of dining culture. Knowing how to find out your china pattern name or number can give you sense of your piece's place in history.