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The Versatility of Blue and White Serving Trays and Platters

Blue and white ceramics remain a popular choice for home decor. From serving plates to mugs, dinner platters to vases, the color combination is crisp and cool. With such easy elegance, it’s understandable that people often chose blue and white ceramics for entertaining. Whether it’s serving your family dinner or serving fancy hors d’oeuvres at a party, blue and white serving plates and food trays can dress up or down to fit the occasion. Here are some of my favorite blue and white ceramic serving platters and ways to use them. What ideas fit your lifestyle?

Football fiesta

Okay, so the Superbowl has passed, but my favorite sport’s season is in its heyday — yes, March Madness is right around the corner! A bowl of chips and salsa, some wings, maybe these delicious looking mini pigs in a blanket, and drinks – you’re ready to go. Causal and sturdy pieces are best for displaying all your finger food options, like this blue and white ceramic serving platter. The festive motif fits perfectly with any party (and won’t break easily if it gets knocked off the table in all the excitement).

Ladies’ tea party

Maybe you have a book club or just a group of girlfriends that like to get together regularly. I love grown-up tea parties with a giant teapot and delicious snacks to go along with it. This blue and white ceramic serving plate looks divine with a stack of scones ready for butter and jam, cucumber sandwiches, or petit fours. Make sure your guests have plenty to drink with sizable blue and white mugs instead of tiny teacups.

 

Elegant hors d’oeuvres

Wine and cheese parties are a perennial favorite, either to celebrate a special occasion or just to try some new vintages. This gorgeous new teal blue platter by Richard Esteban cries out for a tasty array of fromage from mild chèvre to Camembert. And when it comes to canapés or other finger foods, Richard’s large blue serving tray is a sure winner with its unique petal shape and vibrant hue.

 

Do you have other ideas about ways to use your favorite blue and white ceramics? We’d love to hear them, so please share with a comment below!

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How to Avoid Breaking Your Favorite Mugs, Spoon Rests, and More

Gravity sometimes doesn’t feel like a friend when you drop a favorite mug only to have it lose a handle or shatter on your kitchen floor. I heard from a friend last month wanting to find a replacement for a pottery spoon rest she’d dropped and broken. Luckily I still had some that fit her pattern: problem solved.

But it got me thinking: what are the best ways to avoid breaking that favorite Italian hand painted mug or pottery spoon rest? Let’s look at some tips on how to avoid breakage and best care for your gorgeous ceramics.

AVOID: the dishwasher. Chances are if you use something often, it gets washed often. While all my pieces are dishwasher safe, the high temperatures will weaken your handmade Italian pottery spoon rest, plate, bowl, or other favorite pieces, particularly with repeated use. Take the 30 seconds to wash your pieces by hand – they’ll last for years as a result.

EMBRACE: the dishtowel. Dish drying racks are another place that spell doom for Italian hand painted mugs, particularly when you stack them with plates, platters, and bowls. Instead of tempting fate by leaving pieces in a drying rack, quickly wipe them and put them away for added protection.

AVOID: temperature shock. We all know what happens when you put a hot glass into contact with cold water – lots of glass shards to clean up. While Italian pottery holds up better than this, frequent quick temperature changes can result in small cracks in a spoon rest, pitcher, bowl, or other piece. Repeated use of your Italian hand painted mugs in the microwave should be avoided for this reason, even if they’re microwave safe.

EMBRACE: gradual change. The characteristic crazing that majolica develops over time comes as a result of shocks to the glaze. To minimize this effect and keep the integrity of a favorite ceramic piece, make temperature changes smooth. Never go directly from refrigerator to microwave, for example. A handy tip: run warm water in your Italian hand painted mugs before filling them with hot liquids. Your mug will gently warm and keep your drink warmer longer as a result.

AVOID: dropping. Accidents can happen, of course, but most majolica ceramics are quite sturdy. If you protect your pieces from weakening influences, chances are that your Italian pottery spoon rest might survive a small fall and grace your stovetop for years.

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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.

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How to Care for Your Hand Painted Ceramics: 5 Top Tips

Many of my customers worry about how to take care of their Majolica ceramics. It’s not complicated, I promise. Yes, your hand painted ceramics need a little TLC, but nothing too excessive.

Here are 5 top tips for keeping your hand made ceramics in top shape:

1. Don’t overheat. While the Majolica ceramics that I carry are all dishwasher and microwave safe, excess heat can lead to premature wear and potential breakage through weakening. If you must put them in the dishwasher or microwave, use low settings. But I recommend avoiding these heat sources as much as possible.

2. Avoid shocks. Have you ever accidentally put a hot glass dish into a sink with cold water? If it wasn’t Pyrex I’ll bet that it cracked or perhaps shattered spectacularly. Thankfully hand painted ceramics won’t explode if quickly moved from cold to hot, but again, they don’t like it and small cracks can occur. Never transfer a dish straight from the refrigerator to the microwave – make temperature changes as gradual as possible.

3. Crazing isn’t breakage. Over time Majolica ceramics may develop tiny lines or cracks in the glaze. This is a natural part of the aging process for these wonderful hand painted ceramics, not breakage. In fact, some people believe that it adds an antique charm to a piece’s look. If you want to minimize this effect, follow rule #2 assiduously. Run warm water over a plate or bowl before filling it with hot food or liquid, or use a metal spoon as a heat conductor when filling mugs.

4. Beware the drying rack. Hand made ceramics prefer hand washing – but you still need to be careful when it comes to drying. Breakage is easy when you pile plates and mugs or are clumsy with a dishtowel. Minimize stacking and placing pieces where they can be easily knocked over.

5. Use them! Sure the easiest way to keep your Majolica safe is to keep it hidden away… but where’s the fun in that? I believe that part of caring for these fabulous hand made ceramics is using them frequently.  After all, they were created with the intention of being used and loved. So have your morning coffee in that great mug, eat dinner off that beautiful plate, and keep that vase filled with flowers on the dining table. No sense in having Majolica or any other ceramics if you don’t enjoy them!

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The Best Place to Buy Italian Ceramics: It’s Closer than You Might Think

So you’re on a whirlwind vacation in Italy and want to buy some ceramics? Think again. I know what you’re thinking, while there are some things you can’t bring home – the espresso in the piazza, the incredible pizza, the sun glinting on canals – but beautifully-painted Italian ceramics seem like a great, tangible souvenir that will forever remind you of your Italian adventure. However, there are some solid reasons why importing Italian ceramics yourself is just not worth it.

I hear horror stories from customers all the time that go something like this:

“We visited a small town known for its ceramics and shopped around until we found the most interesting artist. We fell in love with the work – it was so unique and perfect for our home! After developing such a strong connection with the people at the workshop, we thought that splurging on an entire set of dishes would be the perfect souvenir.

“The seller told us they could ship directly to our home and that we would avoid paying VAT because of the customs regulations. It was definitely pricey, but we figured it must be cheaper than what we’d pay in the US; even when we found out the handling and shipping fees it still seemed worth it.

“Imagine our frustration when we received our package (a few months later) and found almost half of the pieces broken! I can’t even tell you how upset and disappointed we were.”

Besides the complicated dance that is getting an Italian VAT refund and paying duty at US customs, there’s nothing more upsetting than finding a box of broken shards after you’ve invested hundreds of dollars. Many people just don’t realize how well ceramics need to be packed to make the long journey. I know this from personal experience, you can be sure. I spend a lot of time (and money) researching packing and shipping methods so that everything arrives in one piece, wherever my artists may be located. I hate the idea of letting even one of these works of art break in transit.

Tuscia d'ArteSo what’s the answer? I recommend touring the workshops while in Italy, meeting the artists, gaining an appreciation for the craft, and identifying your favorite designs and styles. Then, once you’ve returned to the States, find a reliable place to buy Italian ceramics. Enjoy your Italian experience and then let someone else do all the legwork that goes into importing. You can buy Italian ceramics online from a reputable source – inquire about their shipping methods and policies before you buy. And think about bringing some less breakable souvenirs home from your next Italian vacation.

Photo of Grand Canal courtesy of Dennis Jarvis.

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How to Choose the Best Handmade Ceramics

When looking at handmade ceramics, sometimes we fall instantly in love with a piece. But is it worth pulling out our wallet and bringing it home? Deciding whether or not to buy handmade ceramic pottery is definitely a subjective task, but here are the five things I look for when purchasing a piece for myself:

1.Individuality and originality. Is there something about the piece that is truly unique? That I’ve never seen before? When actually handmade, no two pieces of ceramic pottery are exactly the same. Furthermore, I love handmade ceramics with a shape and/or design that captures something about the artist or strikes a personal cord. I never regret investing in an original piece of ceramics to which I feel a strong personal connection.

2. Quantity. However, one-of-a-kind can be frustrating if you’re looking to get a matching set of 6 mugs. When picking out mugs (or any other tableware), find out if the artist reuses patterns or makes deliberate sets; some do. Others prefer a less structured approach and only create one-of-a-kind items or those with limited availability. Personally, I think mixing various mug or plate designs is a great way to add depth to the table.

3. Usefulness. If a vase can’t hold water or be thoroughly washed, it’s not much of a vase. Sometimes pieces are overly designed, adding aesthetics but taking away from the practical side of hand-painted ceramics. It’s important to remember that the best handmade ceramics were crafted with the intention of being used. If you find a platter you love and will use in your daily life (or at least more than once a year), it’s a sensible investment.

4. Durability. Will the handmade ceramics you love stand the test of time? Well-made artistic ceramics are actually much more durable than the cheaper, factory-made alternative.  But it is art and you will want to give it special attention, especially if you consider it an heirloom worth keeping forever and passing along to your kids.  The natural aging process for Majolica involves “crazing” (the appearance of minuscule lines in the glaze). While this doesn’t affect durability, it can alter the look of a piece, giving it an antiqued look that most collectors appreciate.

5. Craftsmanship and quality. Hand-painted ceramics are works of art, individually made and painted. Because of the precision involved, you’ll sometimes notice glazing variations, a smudge or even a fingerprint. I always inspect a piece closely to locate these inconsistencies, but I don’t necessarily rule a piece out because of them.  If the ceramics are made by an experienced artist who knows their craft, I consider these “mistakes” to be signs of authenticity, adding personality and value to the purchase.