I started looking for fine china when I was engaged to my husband. I had heard of the classic “wedding china” set people get, sometimes passed down from relatives, sometimes brand new.
My parents had a more casual version we hardly used, but the sentiment was the same. I thought this was tradition. But as I started my search for the pattern I wanted, I found that fine china isn’t as popular as I believed it was. In fact, a Knot survey indicated only 26% of couples even ask for it on a wedding registry, most nay-sayers citing they “don’t think they’ll use it.”
My search started with the brand name sites like Lenox and Noritake, which still have a selection of dinnerware for a pretty penny. Macy’s had a more affordable selection of full sets, but I didn’t like any of the patterns. I struggled to find the right pattern for me on our budget, so I shifted my gaze to secondhand fine china.
My husband and I looked online at sets that we found incredibly affordable on resale sites. In fact, we saw some people who weren’t able to give it away fast enough.
One weekend, we were at an estate sale where we started talking to the family who owned the house. We mentioned that we were just looking, especially for things like fine china. The owner took us to her garage where she had her entire wedding china boxed up and ready to give to her kids, but her adult children didn’t want fine china, even if it was passed down from their mom. We could have the whole set for free if we liked it, and she’d “love to see it appreciated by someone.”
What? That didn’t make sense to me, wouldn’t the daughters want their mother’s china?
But this story played out a few more times while I hunted for a pattern that spoke to me, at estate sales and even over a family dinner where an aunt mentioned none of her daughters wanted her set. Surely, I thought, it at least holds sentimental value to them, right?
But that may actually be where the breakdown begins. I can’t recall my parents using their casual wedding dinnerware on more than a handful of occasions, mainly just on Christmas Eve. Growing up, I actually don’t have many memories of eating off fine china at all.
What’s the Use?
In college, a professor who was treating me and other students to a graduation dinner served us on his wedding china. One of the ladies commented on it, and he said something I will never forget.
He and his wife received this gorgeous fine china for their wedding, and early on in their marriage when he asked his wife if she wanted to use it for an anniversary dinner, she said “No, it’s too nice for that.” He got the same response again and again as he tried to figure out a use for this china set. Easter came and he asked again, and she again said “No.” Which to him begged the question, “If it’s too nice to celebrate Jesus with, then when do we actually use it?”
When my professor posed the question to his wife, he actually asked a question I think many people don’t ask themselves. Some of us know relatives who have nice things just to have them. But the finer things in our lives shine the brightest when we choose to share them with others.
Fine china only brings a space to life when it’s on a dinner table serving its purpose.
In the end, she decided he was right, that it was meant to be used for special occasions – like our graduation dinner – and I couldn’t agree more.
Fine china isn’t worth spending the space to store it in your house if it’s not actually used. Some sites say it’s great for home décor, but I disagree. Sure, it can elevate a gathering space but also makes it stuffy and stiff. I think it only brings a space to life when it’s on a dinner table serving its purpose.
Tradition would lead us to believe that a prerequisite to using china is hosting a formal event, but I think this is where our modern spin can come in. At this graduation dinner my professor had fun with it – he set out menus and we all sat at his gorgeous dining table, but we weren’t dressed to the nines or doing things out of character.
It was a delightful evening with people my professor cared about. Using his china for the occasion signaled that to all of us, and I was thankful to be a part of it.
Now, I find myself bringing out our wedding china for not just holidays but also when we have friends we love over for dinner. If my husband is treating me to a morning coffee that he wants to elevate he puts it in a tea cup, which is just our special thing.
On occasion when I’m having a particularly bad day I’ll drink wine from my grandmother’s crystal glasses and put a piece of pizza on one of my Lenox Hannah plates while in sweats. No, it’s not because I want to feel like an English aristocrat; treating yourself like a person worth special treatment is a form of self-care on a hard day.
A Modern Nod to Past Traditions
Choosing the china that you find attractive is key. When setting a table for guests, it’s another attractive way to express your personal style.
This sense of personal expression is what should make heirloom china valuable to the recipient. Heirloom china is more than a dinner set. It’s a window into your own history and a connection to the past.
Heirloom china is a window into your own history and a connection to the past.
I was given my great grandmother’s china set last year, and no, it doesn’t really match my wedding china set and some of the items are a little worn from use. I think I like that the most, though, that she not only picked out this set but enjoyed it with some frequency. This tells me a little more about a woman who’s an important link in my family chain that I never got to meet.
My husband has a more exquisite heirloom china set in his family – his great grandmother actually hand-painted a set of china herself that has been passed down through generations. Each unique piece is more than just a showcase of her personal style, it’s a gorgeous labor of love and a token of his family history.
I understand that it’s not necessarily mainstream, it’s more of the quirky thing to have fine china (and especially to use it). But to those who roll their eyes, hear me out – fine china is not only a way to style your table but also a beautiful way to express yourself. It can tie you to your past if you’re lucky enough to inherit a set, and if not, it’s a tradition that can start with you.
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