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Is the Price Right for Italian Ceramics?

Have you ever watched “The Price is Right,” the game show where people guess how much things cost and then win them if they’re correct? After spending a few months in our pop-up shop explaining pricing to customers, I feel like I could be a big winner on that show, especially when it comes to Italian ceramics. People often ask – why are they so expensive, particularly when compared to pieces at big box stores like Sur la Table or Williams Sonoma?

There are many factors that go into the price of Italian ceramics, but the major ones are materials, the manufacturing method, and quantity of production, particularly for majolica style ceramics. Supplies for Italian ceramics include clay, glazes, and temper, as well as all the tools and equipment from kilns to potter’s wheels. Rising costs and inflation in recent times have affected ceramic artists just like they have everyone else (especially in Italy). When materials cost more, the product itself becomes more expensive. In fact, many of the larger Italian ceramic manufacturers have sadly gone out of business in the last 5 years.

Artists then face the tough choice between cutting costs and compromising on quality or raising prices and keeping to a high standard. It’s a phenomenon that’s not limited to Italian ceramics – designer clothes, handbags, even peanut butter have all seen rising material costs over the past few years.

Manufacturing method also makes a major difference in pricing. Handmade ceramics require skilled craftsmanship to create, whereas mass-produced pieces require workers to operate machines. I’ve talked about the difference in these Italian ceramic types before, particularly the trend of pieces being made somewhere else and only finished in Italy with a “Made in Italian” signature. There are lots of “Italian ceramics” on the market currently with dubious origins, often actually made in China or Portugal.

The last aspect of Italian ceramic pricing is quantity. At Emilia Ceramics, we work exclusively with small manufacturers, some of which are made up of a single artist. At Ceramiche Bartoloni, for instance, it is just the Bartoloni brothers (Patrizio and Stefano) who do all the ceramic artwork. And because our orders are selective, requesting one of a kind pieces with their own unique character and style, they are relatively small. Importing these small productions of handmade Italian ceramics means higher shipping costs than larger manufacturers sending over boat-loads of a manufactured product.

With all these factors in mind, I think it’s more important than ever to support artists that are continuing a craft that’s generations in the making. And I feel good about cutting out all the middlemen and paying my money directly to the hardworking and talented artists in Italy. While there might be ceramics “inspired by” Italian methods, nothing quite matches up with the real thing. And to me, that’s worth every penny.

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A Few of My Favorite (French) Things…

Back in September, I took an amazing buying trip to Provence. I revisited my favorite artists: Sylvie Duriez, Patrice Voelkel, Richard Esteban, and the 5th-generation family-run Poterie Ravel. It’s difficult not to overbuy on a trip like that. I was overwhelmed by the creativity of each artist and just kept falling in love with one piece after another. By the end of the trip, I was pretty convinced that I had bought way too much. But as it turns out, that’s nearly impossible. You just can’t buy too much of the beautiful ceramics these French artists are creating. I am constantly blown away by the color and creativity surrounding me in my pop-up shop in Palo Alto and my customers have absolutely loved my French finds. Speaking of the shop, it is closing next Wednesday, March 14th. So if you’re in the Palo Alto area, now’s your last chance to stop by. As for the rest of you, here are a few of my favorite new French ceramics… most of which are now available online.

Pitchers with Personality.

I fell in love with the Three Hearts Pitcher (above left) in Sylvie’s workshop and had to convince her to sell it to me. It is packed with personality (like all of Sylvie’s pieces) and defines one-of-a-kind. It combines fun with authentic and raw emotion all at once. And don’t even get me started on Patrice Voelkel’s large pitcher in (what I’m calling) dark cranberry (above right). The soft glaze on this pitcher is irresistible and the shape is both functional and absolutely breathtaking. These two pitchers are everything a pitcher should be: useful, beautiful, artistic, and individual. In addition to these attributes, they convey a rustic and earthy quality that communicates pure Provencal personality.

Functional and Fun Platters.

 

Continuing the theme of soft and inviting glazes, Richard Esteban’s platters are beautiful pieces to look at, but even better to use. The large petal platter (above right) is just begging for a selection of charcuterie or a main dish like roast chicken. The cheese plate (photo on the left) boasts a fresh, spring-inspired glaze with rustic flecks of brown around the edges. If appetizers of cheese and fruit are your kind of thing, then this serving platter is perfect. I love the way the green makes a relaxing backdrop for the more elaborate Limoni plates and mugs by Ceramiche Bartoloni.

Everyday Pieces You’ll Want to Use… Everyday.

  Whether for cereal, ice cream, snacks, or dipping sauces, the polka-dot bowls in 3 different sizes will bring a smile to your face all day long. Our new arrivals from France also include polka-dot mugs, creamers, plates, and pitchers. Mix and match the polka-dots with plates depicting birds, houses and dogs for a dinner table that is as interesting as the people gathered at it.

Artwork You Can Eat Off, But May Not Want To.

While hand-thrown with the intention that they get used as serving dishes, bowls, pitchers, and creamers, nobody can deny that Sylvie’s pieces are first and foremost works of art. The bowls pictured here are perfect examples – whether depicting birds chatting happily on a flowering branch or expressive (and oh-so-French) women lounging on a lazy afternoon, her soft, watercolor-like glaze transports us much like a painting on a canvas would do.

One reason I have always loved Sylvie’s pitchers is simply that they can be looked at and used simultaneously. Both the mini pitchers and small pitchers are great as creamers or to hold a small bouquet of flowers. The whimsical paintings are pure delight.

I always suggest Sylvie’s one-of-a-kind artwork to customers looking for the perfect birthday or Mother’s Day gift. They are unique, expressive, and unfortunately, almost completely sold-out after my extended season in the pop-up shop! Click here to see what’s left.

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Handmade Italian Ceramics: How to Shop Smart

I talk a lot about my love of handmade Italian ceramics, but let’s take a look at the alternatives. There are many stores and sites that sell “Italian ceramics” – but are they really what they claim to be? What should you be aware of when looking for stores that sell Italian ceramics? And what are really the differences between hand painted Italian ceramics and manufactured ones?

The alternative to handmade Italian ceramics (or handmade ceramics of any kind) is ubiquitous, impersonal mass produced home decor. I came across “Deruta-Style” dishware like this the other day at Sur la Table. Sure, the plates don’t claim to be handmade Italian ceramics, simply “inspired by” the region. It makes me think of the arguments made against buying counterfeited designer goods. Companies (and in the case of ceramics, small family-run businesses) work hard to build up their reputation and create unique products of the highest quality. When those ideas are stolen, sold at a fraction of the price, and with a fraction of the quality, not only do the businesses suffer, but consumers do as well, explains a recent opinion piece in the Times & Transcript.

In a way Sur la Table is selling knockoffs of a style that artists have made famous through a tradition of craftsmanship for generations. And they’re not alone when it comes to stores that sell Italian ceramics – many will make claims that pieces are made in Italy for the cachet when they clearly came from elsewhere.

But when you’re investing in the beauty of true Italian handcrafted ceramics, how can you spot a fake? Just like leather handbags or designer shoes, there are lots of them out there! Here are some tips for shopping at stores that sell Italian ceramics to make sure you get what you really want.

  • Flip it over. All authentic ceramics should have some mark of origin on the bottom. There are guides to these marks for antiques, but anything that’s genuine handmade Italian ceramic will have something there. And beyond just stating the country, hand-painted ceramics is usually signed by the artist.
    Clearly made in Japan, not Italy.
  • Touch test. Along with a mark, the bottom or foot of the piece should be unglazed if its authentic Italian handcrafted ceramic. This will look like a ring of rough, unglazed clay with a brown-orange color to it. You should feel the glaze as well for the natural variations that occur.
  • Brushstrokes.
    From 16th century Italy; can you see the brushstrokes?

    This along with crazing is another true test of hand painted Italian ceramics. If a pattern looks a little too perfect, it probably was manufactured on a machine. There’ll be some variations in color and pattern too.

    Modern piece by Tuscia d'Arte; look at the brushstrokes here as well.
  • Know your source. If pieces are legitimately hand painted Italian ceramics, the seller should know something about the people that make them. I am always shocked when a shop owner knows nothing about the artists behind the work. It’s a pretty good bet that if a shop stocks generic “Italian ceramics” it’s probably coming from a large factory on Italian soil or, as I mentioned earlier, is merely “Italian inspired.” This is one of the reasons I frequently visit my artists in person; I see the entire process in motion and love to share photos and stories about the artists with my customers. Aside from traveling to Italy and buying directly from the artists (which I definitely recommend), it is the best way to buy with confidence that they are 100% handmade Italian ceramics.

Ceramic mark image courtesy of Grannies Kitchen.

16th century jar image courtesy of F B.

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Can You Identify Handpainted Ceramics?

While the beauty and function of a ceramic piece is important, its origin has equal value in my mind. That is why I get to know artists personally, visiting their workshops in small towns, watching them work and discussing the techniques, glazes, and firing styles they employ. For me, there is no substitute for the knowledge that a bowl or plate I’m using was lovingly crafted and painted by human hands.

But what is the real difference between handpainted ceramics and their mass-produced counterparts? When Italian authorities began investigations to fight against fake handmade and handpainted ceramics several years ago, they obviously thought it a difference worth noting. In 2010 they ended up seizing over 2000 pieces bearing the “Handpainted in Deruta” signature that was in fact a decal transfer, not handpainted at all, says That’s Arte. These ceramics were being sold to tourists as well as exported as authentic Italian handpainted ceramics. Clearly there is money to be made here.

Art fraud or really any replication of a luxury good is becoming even more popular. From paintings to watches to handbags, it’s important to know the signs of the genuine article before making a purchase. Here’s what to look for when it comes to ceramic hand painting:

  • Brushstrokes. Ceramic hand painting will always show its true colors with brushstrokes, even if they are small. Often these come in a series in areas of solid color, but look carefully for the slightly darker areas that show overlap. (Can you see them in the image below?) Sometimes fakes will have a hand-painted rim on a plate or cup, so inspect multiple areas. Manufactured printed pieces often have a pixelated look instead of the even brushstrokes created by a human hand.
  • Crazing. With majolica pottery, this is a sure sign of authenticity. Crazing is the effect by which little hairlines appear over time (like in this photo blow); it’s a natural part of the aging process, which means it is only apparent in older ceramics. Pieces with bright white backgrounds and no texture should be suspect; authentic majolica made with ceramic hand painting will have more of a creamy white color instead.
  • Texture. The complex firing process of majolica produces slightly raised lines where the ceramic hand painting occurs. This “fat glaze” gives it such a wonderful hand feel; something mass-produced will have a flat surface. Another test is to scratch the piece with a coin; the glaze shouldn’t be affected at all.

Of course, the surest way to confirm a piece’s authenticity is to get to know the artist. This guarantees that you are buying handpainted ceramics. I visit my artists’ studios as often as possible, seeing the entire process in motion. That way, I know that my collection represents high quality and one-hundred percent handcrafted work.

Crazing image courtesy of Steve Snodgrass.