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New trends in selecting china

By Jane AndersonStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 14, 1983

In the 1700s, Europeans were captivated with the Chinese porcelain brought back by traders and were eager to learn how to make it themselves. The process, however, was carefully guarded. As Sissela Bok writes in ''Secrets,'' when the mystery was finally unraveled, ''Both the German and French porcelain factories became the focus of espionage efforts as soon as their products began to be sold. Clandestine forces fought over the secrets in and around the factories. The French process was finally stolen by an English agent who had infiltrated one of the factories, helping England to begin its own manufacture at last.''

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Porcelain and china bask in the glow of a glamorous past, and the wide array of choices produced today still symbolizes a desire for beauty in everyday life. Choosing china can be a satisfying expression of individual taste and style, but it can also be a major expense. With patterns ranging from $35 to $555 per place setting, people buying china for the first time are finding ways to make the most of their investment.

''People are taking a more practical approach,'' says Deedee Kaplan of Kaplan's Ben-Hur in Houston, a suburban specialty store featuring china, silver, and giftware. She says their younger customers lean more toward traditional patterns that cannot be dated and are investing in china rather than less durable earthenware.

''We find ourselves more and more not only helping the married couple, but the single professional person,'' says Charles Thomas, head of the china department at Shreve, Crump, & Low in Boston.

Considering the expense of china, Mr. Thomas encourages customers to tailor their table settings to their individual needs, thinking through the number of people they are likely to entertain at one time and the types of food they usually serve.

He suggests arranging an actual setting on a table in the store, preferably under a warm incandescent light, to judge the visual impact of the pattern and to try out different pieces for function. He notes that the body color of the china makes a difference in its overall effect. American china tends to have an ivory or yellow tone. English bone china is a true, milky white, and French hard-paste porcelains usually have a bright white body color. Japanese china has a blue or gray cast.

George Watts, owner of George Watts & Son Inc. in Milwaukee, sees a growing market for ''transitional china'' that works equally well for everyday and more formal situations, eliminating the need to buy two entirely different sets of dinnerware.

Mr. Watts says patterns in the ''transitional'' category are marked by ''a restrained formality with vitality in color and design. These patterns aren't bland. They don't just sit there, they say something.''

In assessing quality, some people overvalue technical details and overlook artistic qualities, Mr. Watts finds. He recommends looking first at the general design, taking into account the pattern, shape of the piece, and body color. ''If it passes those tests, you can take a closer look,'' he says.

According to Mr. Watts, Japanese china manufacturers are ''doing a superb job'' on all counts. ''They are tough competitors in terms of price and quality, '' he says.