Setting the Table

Today's Best Dinnerware Values

Today’s dinnerware brings fresh ideas to the table. It’s more durable than ever before, and new designs are versatile enough to go from weekday dinners to weekend parties. You also will find that manufacturers have added more pieces to their collections and now package pieces of the same item.

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If you want to replace your chipped or mismatched dinnerware, or retire the fancy china that you inherited from grandma in favor of something that is more practical, you’re in luck. More of today’s dinnerware is tough enough for the daily grind and nice enough for weekend entertaining because of simpler understated patterns and designs that bridge the gap between casual and fine dining.

Dinnerware has become more durable than it was 5 years ago, but if you still manage to shatter a plate or need extras for a party, here’s more good news: You now can add four-packs of individual pieces for a fraction of the cost of buying them individually.

MADE TO LAST. Careless kids, jostling dishwashers and sharp steak knives are no match for most of today’s dinnerware, which is more chip-resistant than it was 5 years ago (when we last reported on these products).

Manufacturers have reduced chipping—particularly in stoneware (high-temperature-manufactured ceramics) and earthenware (low-temperature-manufactured porous ceramics). The extra sturdiness of these two types of dinnerware comes from the addition of aluminum oxides, which make the dinnerware harder; and the increased use of double-firing—firing the clay twice to create and strengthen the dinnerware, and to fuse the glaze to the dinnerware. Double-firing, experts tell us, makes the material harder and less porous.

Meanwhile, transitional dinnerware, which is more formal and uses high-end materials, such as porcelain and bone china, also has been reformulated to be more resistant to chipping. The reformulation is accomplished by tweaking the ratio of minerals that are added to the clay before it is fired. As a result, Lenox’s transitional Simply Fine collection of bone china, which was introduced in 2008, has a lifetime guarantee against chipping—the first guarantee of its kind of which we’re aware.
SOURCE SPOT. Most dinnerware now is produced in Asia—primarily China—although a handful of companies specialize in hand-painted dinnerware that is produced in Italy and Portugal. (You typically will pay more for these products. A four-piece place setting of hand-painted dinnerware that is from Italy, for instance, might cost you around $70, compared with about $40 for a similar design that’s hand-painted at an Asian factory.)

Regardless of the origins of the dinnerware, if you stick with well-known brands and reputable retailers, you don’t need to worry about buying products that contain unhealthy levels of lead or cadmium, which are used to color the glaze on dinnerware. The use of those minerals came under heavy scrutiny after a rash of discoveries in 2007 of lead-tainted products that came from China. But subsequent tests on dinnerware that were performed by independent labs showed that the products fell within mandated federal levels. (Food and Drug Administration for decades has regulated the use in dinnerware of leachable substances—the amount that can be transferred to food.)

“Regulations by the FDA, and lawsuits brought under California’s Proposition 65, have virtually eliminated problems” that pertain to dinnerware, says Sandy Spence of Society of Glass & Ceramic Decorated Products, which is a trade group of designers, decorators and marketers of glass, ceramic and related products. (Proposition 65—the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986—requires California to publish and update yearly information on chemicals that are known to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm. Products that contain these chemicals must be so labeled.)

Instead of having separate product lines or putting warning labels on packaging, major dinnerware retailers and manufacturers follow California’s law and avoid using the problematic materials. Spence says it has been 3 years since California’s attorney general filed a complaint about ceramic wares, which include dinnerware. We believe that this is a good indication that today’s dinnerware is safe to use.

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