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.''
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.
Margaret Maclay, china consultant and table stylist at Shreve's, believes young couples should take their time in choosing a china pattern, since they will have to live with it for a long time. She recommends exploring all the possibilities within their taste range, perhaps considering a more striking pattern or an unusual color. ''If the pattern is dull today it will be even more dull tomorrow,'' she says.
If a couple feels timid or ambivalent about its choice, she suggests postponing a decision. ''People shouldn't feel they need to march out and buy 12 place settings,'' she adds.
At the minimum, most people need a dinner plate and a teacup and saucer. The next additions are likely to be a bowl and a smaller plate for salad or dessert.
It is not necessary to buy everything in one pattern. Most china is sold ''open stock,'' which means the pieces can be bought separately and combined for a warmer, more individual look.
''There is a mania for matching among Americans that is a bit unseemly,'' says Mr. Watts, who favors a more eclectic approach to table settings.
Although mixing patterns has become popular in the past few years, it is not a new idea. According to Mrs. Maclay, the concept dates back to the time when china was first used on the royal tables in Europe. In those days, she says, ''No one had sets of dishes, they had collections of porcelains.''
One way to mix patterns effectively is to start with a relatively simple dinner plate and matching cup and saucer. These basics are then combined with a more highly patterned, smaller plate for the first course or dessert.
According to Mrs. Maclay, the smaller plate placed on the dinner plate sets off the first course, which is usually small and simple. For the main course, she says, ''the artistry and color of the food itself constitute the adornment.'' And, for the final course, ''the more elaborate the plate, the more opulent the dessert course becomes.''
Using this method, a variety of effects can be achieved by substituting smaller plates in different patterns without the expense of an entirely new set of china.
If a person has inherited a small set of heirloom pieces, Deedee Kaplan suggests setting a ''friendship table,'' alternating an old table setting with a new. The new pattern may be linked to the old by historical period or provide a contrast with color or simple lines.
Charles Thomas offers one important point to remember in combining old china with new: Be certain the body colors match.
When coordinating flatware and crystal with china, the fundamental approach is to choose the china first, the silver next, and the crystal last. The choice of silver and crystal may be based on a historical period or a repeating motif in the china pattern. Other factors to consider are the weight and proportion of the china pattern.
Before settling on a choice of china, says Mr. Thomas, it's a good idea to check the longevity of the pattern. Most reputable china manufacturers alert retailers in advance if a pattern is going to be discontinued. Once you've chosen a pattern, you may want to call the dealer every couple of years to check on the status of the pattern.