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Differences Between Porcelain and Pottery

Porcelain, which is also called china or bone china, is very different from pottery, also known as earthenware. Pottery is made from clay with very coarse grains and pottery products are usually fired in a kiln at a lower temperature than that of porcelain.

Pottery is always opaque without even a hint of light coming through it, unlike some versions of porcelain, which have varying degrees of translucency. Pottery is less costly to make than porcelain. Also, firing pottery at a lower temperature does not create the same density as that achieved with porcelain, making pottery not quite as strong.

Porcelain on the other hand is made from fine-grained white clay called kaolin to which other ingredients are added, such as feldspar or fine bone ash. When holding a piece of porcelain you should be able to see some light coming through the piece. If you hold a piece of thin “eggshell” porcelain up to the light you will actually be able to see your fingers through it.

Being thinner, yet stronger and more durable, porcelain is always the material of choice for fine work, such as delicate teacups or trinket trays. It is surprising that a small and dainty piece of porcelain is inherently stronger than a larger and thicker piece of pottery, such as a mixing bowl.

This phenomenon is somewhat explained by the fact that there are more air bubbles in pottery and the fusion of the larger particles are not as strong or as dense as they are with porcelain.

Unlike pottery, there are three main types of porcelain:

Hard-paste: Developed in China around the time of the Tang Dynasty 618-907, hard-paste porcelain is the original form. Porcelain with a similar formula is still being made today, although there have been some changes made to the ingredients in an effort to better control the integrity of the pieces being made while they are in the kiln.

Soft-paste: This is the European version of porcelain that was developed around the early 1700s. Unable to duplicate the hard-paste porcelain made by China, some countries in Europe finally developed a version that produced the desired effect they wanted so they settled on soft-paste porcelain as their mainstay. Chinese porcelain had been highly sought after by the Europeans for years but it was too costly for the general population. The Chinese porcelain that was imported to Europe resided only with the wealthy. Today European porcelain is extremely desirable and is in demand everywhere.

Bone China: England was the first to develop bone china around 1750 and it was Josiah Spode who was credited with the discovery. England was and still is the major distributor of fine bone china all over the globe.

The actual “paste” is the material that is used to form the body of a piece of porcelain. The main differences between hard-paste, soft-paste and bone china are variations in the ingredients, as well as the firing temperatures and the firing times that are used when pieces are placed in a kiln.

Technically porcelain wares do not require a glaze to enable them to hold liquids. Porcelain glaze is mainly used to prevent staining and to compliment the decorating process. This is the complete opposite of pottery and earthenware. Earthenware requires a glaze if it is to be used to hold or carry liquids of any kind.

Glaze is a coating that once applied will fuse itself to porcelain when it is fired in a kiln. There are different types of glazes and different glaze finishes. The finishes include gloss which is shiny and matte which is dull. Some of the various glazes used over the years have included lead, tin, salt and crackle. Crackle glaze happens when the porcelain and the glaze shrink at different rates while the pieces are cooling off from their time in a kiln. Depending on the particular piece of porcelain, a crackle glaze could have either a negative effect or a positive effect. Crackle glaze pieces can be highly collectible.

Decorative designs as well as a company’s mark or backstamp can appear either under the glaze or over the glaze. These will usually always appear under the glaze on older pieces.

Choosing to collect porcelain pieces or pottery pieces is strictly a matter of taste. Some people are drawn to delicate eggshell porcelain. It is so fine and translucent one can’t help but fear that a light tap against the kitchen faucet will break it. Other people gravitate toward the bulkier and more rugged looking pottery pieces such as large vases, console bowls and candle holders. Just remember if you decide to collect the bigger pieces of pottery instead of the more dainty pieces of porcelain, it is the rugged looking stuff that you have to keep away from the kitchen faucet.

Anne Benedetto is a former auction house owner and former dealer in the antiques and collectibles business. She presently provides people with important details, behind the scenes information, helpful tips and first hand knowledge of the brick and mortar auction business. Visit Anne at which is an interactive site where interested people can talk about the ins and outs of auctions, antiques and collectibles.

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