Fine china collections often begin by inheriting a grandmother, or great-grandmother’s, set of special occasion dishes. If you’re not lucky enough to have that type of set being passed down to you, no problem. There’s actually an advantage to that. Instead of taking up where grandma left off, you can find an antique or vintage pattern that suits your own taste and style.
No matter how you get started, this type of collecting is more than a hobby. Putting together a set of antique or vintage dinnerware can be a fun way to outfit your kitchen or decorate your dining area.
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Adding Pieces to a Set
If you’re trying to find pieces that go with an antique or vintage set you’ve inherited, or purchased incomplete, the first thing to do is to determine who made the dinnerware. This information is often stamped on the back of one of the dinner plates. Many times the pattern name will be shown there as well. Having these details at hand will help you search for pieces to purchase, whether via online auctions or through local antique dealers.
If you don’t know the maker of the china or a pattern name, try visiting a china matching service. For example, Replacements has a free china identification service that will make quick work of this task. Simply send them a clear photo showing the design and color, along with any marks or numbers you’ve found on the backs or bottoms of pieces. In a week or two, they’ll get back to you with the manufacturer’s details and the pattern name. They can even sign you up for email updates that let you know when new pieces in your pattern have been added to their inventory.
And, of course, you can look for pieces here and there while you’re out vintage shopping. Finding a plate or serving piece in an obscure antique shop or flea market field is all part of the fun.
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Starting a New Collection
If you’ve been seeing dinnerware patterns that catch your eye as you’re browsing antique malls or shopping vintage sites online, think about your lifestyle. Do you plan on using these dishes frequently? Or, do you just want to display them in a china cabinet?
It depends on your budget, of course, but more expensive sets are often saved for special occasions or for display pieces. For more frequent use, think about whether you really want fine china or if a vintage stoneware pattern might work better. Then, narrow down what appeals to you most about the different patterns you’re considering within your budget.
Whether you like frilly florals or Mid-Century styles, imagine setting a table in your kitchen or dining room with those dishes. Then you can go with a pattern you’ll really love to use and share with others on a skillfully decorated table.
Can’t narrow it down? Many people collect more than one set for use at different times of the year or for different occasions. These range from transferware designs in blue and white or brown and white by Johnson Brothers or Spode to super expensive floral classics like Flora Danica by Royal Copenhagen.
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Considering Antique China
The really old patterns, like the various designs found on Haviland Limoges dinnerware, will likely give you a bit more trouble when it comes to identification and collecting. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done, just that it may be more of a challenge in some instances. Depending on the pattern you inherited or selected, antique dishes can be a bit harder to locate. That’s especially true when it comes to serving pieces, which can also be quite pricey. Look at all the highs and lows for antique dinnerware pieces in your chosen pattern, and decide if there are too many that are going to be out of your budget range before getting serious.
It’s also important to realize that the older the dishes are, the more likely that they’ve sustained some chips, cracks, and scratches over the years. Be sure to check each piece carefully by running your finger along the edges (the same way you would check vintage glassware for damage) to feel for chips. You can still purchase items with minor condition issues, but unless it’s a piece you’ve sought for ages, it’s best not to pay top dollar. Buy antique dinnerware in good to excellent condition whenever possible to maintain the value of your set.
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Buying Vintage Dinnerware
If you're thinking newer is better in terms of budgeting, that’s not always the case. Some vintage dinnerware patterns (whether bone china or earthenware), especially those dating to the 1950s and '60s, can be just as expensive per piece as fine antique dinnerware. Do some research to see how much it's going to cost to complete a set in that vintage pattern you love before getting started to make sure it aligns with your budget.
Just as you would with antique china, look at your lifestyle and how you plan to use the dinnerware as you pick out a pattern. For versatility, you can go with solid white. Or, you might select a botanical pattern that has different artsy floral prints on each place setting for variety. Check online multi-dealer sites like Ruby Lane and Etsy to narrow down a favorite.
When buying vintage dinnerware online, use the photos posted to inspect the pieces you’re considering for damage before you pull the trigger. If you’re not sure about the condition, ask pertinent questions of the seller before making up your mind. A reputable seller will be upfront about any damage present, and they’ll understand the need for your queries. If the dealer appears to be new to online selling, be sure to request safe packing and shipping, and give them some pointers as needed. There’s nothing more disappointing than having a fragile item arrive broken, especially if it’s a really hard-to-find piece.
With some patience and diligence, you can have fun completing a set of dishes you’ll enjoy using for years to come.