Wedgwood potteries resists Britain's industrial crunch

In the neat, large-windowed factory, she centers the unfired cup on the potter's wheel beside her chair. Then she bends down, eye level with the spinning rim.

Her hair spilling onto the workbench, she touches a small brush to the cup base in a quick and practiced motion. It leaves a slender line -- the pure gold band that distinguishes some of the patterns of this highly prized brand of china, which costs up to $:110 (about $250) for a single dinner plate.

A recent high school graduate, who has spent two years perfecting this simple-appearing but highly demanding task, she is one of 2,600 employees at the Wedgwood factory here. She likes her job and feels Wedgwood is "the best place to work" in the Staffordshire potteries.

Yet her livelihood is inextricably caught up in economic crosscurrents beyond her grasp. After years of expansion, Wedgwood has had to put 900 of her fellow employees on four-day weeks. For, like all of Britain's potteries, Wedgwood is a lens concentrating the rays of industrial hardship with particular intensity. These rays include:

* High interest rates (the minimum lending rate in Britain is 17 percent). Borrowing to meet expansion and cash-flow demands, Wedgwood found its loan interest costs tripling last year over 1978, and they are still rising.

* Energy costs, slicing deeply into a company that pours gas and electricity into kilns that stay at 1,150 degrees C. 24 hours a day.

* Exchange rates, where a strong pound hurts. Wedgwood exports 60 percent of its wares, with 40 percent going to dollar-week North America. Yet its clay, from domestic pits in Devon and Cornwall, is home-dug and expensive.

* High inflatin, driving up transportation costs and wages. The company founded in 1759, has not been struck sinc the 1926 general strike. But absenteeism, while low, is a problem when so many skilled jobs are interlinked in step-by-step processes of mixing, making, firing, and glazing. Even the price of gold and platinum gnaws into profits, which fell 66 percent in the first quarter of 1979 but are rising again.

To many familiar with the white-figured, unglazed blue Jasper ware, a world without Wedgwood is as inconceivable as a world without MG, the famous British sports car. Yet MG may cease production early next year. Will Wedgwood follow?

"No way," both insiders and outside observers say. "If you're offering good value for money," Derek Halfpenny, a company spokesman, says, "you'll get the business." Quality is paramount, whether in inexpensive transfer-printed earthenware, richly wrought gilded Black Astbury, or such novelties as handmade chess sets and ladies' ceramic high heels. Inspections are constant among the automated plate molds and glaze sprayers. As Mr. Halfpenny says, "There are professional faultfinders all throughout this factory."

Another key to success is design. Although some patterns in production are half a century old, the company employs nearly 50 designers, mapping out the 15, 000 items that please the tastes of customers in more than 60 countries.

The deputy chairman, Peter Williaams, sees the present difficulties as "a hiccup, a period of adjustment."

"We've been around for a little while," he says from his office in Britain's most modern pottery factory, on the lawns of this 500-acre estate. He doesn't plan to sit out the hiccup. Taking the initiative, Wedgwood has mounted an advertisng campaign in honor of the 250th birthday of its founder, Josiah Wedgwood. One of its master ceramic artists, Anthony Baggott, is on a six-month tour of the United States, demonstrating freestyle painting and decoration in museums and shopping centers from Akron to Amarillo.

Meanwhile, back at the uncluttered benches of Barlaston, the women dab on the brilliant enamels and the men slap pancakelike "bats" of clay onto the plaster molds. Like the market, the clay resists. "China clay wants to fight against whatever you do to it," Mr. Helfpenny says. "It wants to get back to some shape other than what you've given it." But skill pays off in the end. About 90 percent of the pieces emerging from the 273-foot-long tunnel kiln are perfect -- proof that British industry, despite a recent bad press, can still do things right.

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