Porcelain and Pottery: How to tell the difference


When considering buying a bowl or antique vase one important thing to know is whether the piece is porcelain or pottery. While only experience will enable you to do this quickly and with complete accuracy there are some simple things the novice collector can do to help make sure that they get what they’re paying for.

Of course just because an antique is made of pottery and not china does not mean it has no value or should be avoided. Many beautiful and incredibly desirable T’ang and Sung dynasty bowls and vases are pottery and are worth fortunes. However when it comes to most collectors they would rather have china than earthenware. Occasionally a dishonest dealer will try to pass an earthen object as porcelain in hopes of attracting the more numerous collectors of china.

The first thing to do is to check the piece’s translucence. Hold the item up to as strong a light as is available. The light will show through a true porcelain or china piece. This test will not prove highly effective if the piece is particularly dense, such as the base of a very large bowl. In those cases try and find a thinner area on the piece such as the lip.

Sometimes china is made from a paste with a combination of ingredients that will limit the amount of light that passes through the piece. However unless density is the problem some light should show through the piece.

Pottery is rarely constructed of a material that will maintain its white color all the way through the piece but porcelain almost always will. If the piece being considered has a chip or is otherwise broken examine the insides, if the color changes to a beige or really any other color than white it is almost undoubtedly pottery and not china.

The third method for determining if a piece is authentic porcelain will only work if the piece is flawless or nearly so. Set it on a stable smooth surface and strike it lightly. A true china piece will ring with a clear bell like sound. This test is not always the best way to tell but it is a gratifying feeling when you hear that musical note. Experienced collectors will learn to tell porcelain from pottery by the manner that light reflects from the protective glaze. I can offer no guidelines for what to look for as even experts disagree. It is in truth a practically intuition if not out right ESP. I once knew a woman who claimed she could tell the difference based on her sense of smell. She refused to explain how.

Now the catch, some forms of stoneware are made from a hard paste extremely similar to porcelain. Stoneware antiques will have the hardness, whiteness, and even the translucence of porcelain. In these cases you have to hope that the item was made without a protective glaze. Stoneware rarely needs a protective coat and so this is often missing. If a well-made stoneware piece has been given a glaze it can be extremely difficult for the novice to detect the difference.

—-Silas Finch is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Collectible Antiques Etc. He can be reached at Content and Solutions.com.

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