What is the Difference Between Dinnerware, Porcelain and China?

If you’re shopping for new set of dishes for your home, or perhaps registering for your wedding, you might have wondered why there are many different terms used. There are plates listed as porcelain. Some are listed as fine china, some bone china, and some just states “dinnerware.” At first, they may seem just the same, but you can learn here about what distinguishes them from each other.


Let’s start with the one with the most obvious difference. The term “dinnerware” encompasses all types of dishes including porcelain and china. Porcelain and china are types of material, but dinnerware can be made of other substances including stoneware, pottery and even plastics and glass. Like china, there are many matching dinnerware sets that include not just plates but also bowls, cups, mugs and saucers. But most dinnerware are casually designed and are dishwasher safe, making them ideal for everyday use.

Oftentimes, choosing a casual dinnerware pattern is more affordable than buying fancy china, but that’s not always true. Depending on the brand or maker, you can find that some dishware sets can cost as much as a set of bone china or fine porcelain.

Families with young children often opt for plastic dinnerware because it’s one of the cheapest yet most durable type available. It can still crack when dropped on a hard surface, but not as prone to breaking as with a porcelain, stoneware or china when dropped the same way. Plastic can also scratch with daily utensil use, but overall, it’s more child friendly. And since it’s cheap, you can always buy more. You can kick it up a notch to a nicer dinnerware when they grow up.

Porcelain and China

Now here’s the more confusing part: the difference between porcelain and china. Usually, the term “china” (especially in the United States” refer to the “good dishes. In most homes, china is the pretty and expensive place settings reserved for holidays, special occasions, and other super special days like when the Queen of England comes over. This type of set is usually passed from generation to generation. In the days gone by, brides most often register for a china pattern, but nowadays, less and less couple do so. They either forgo china because they prefer a more casual and modern place setting (because why are most china pieces flowery and fussy?), while some of them enjoys hand-me-downs from their grandmother when she no longer has use for it.

But what’s the difference between china and porcelain? As it turns out it’s the same thing – it just differed in the term. “China” came from its country of origin, while the term “porcelain” came from the Latin word “porcella,” which means seashell. Also, what people refer to as “porcelain” is fine china. But the two still have their slight differences (more on that later).

The earliest porcelains originated in China and they used kaolin clay combined with granite. Early European versions used clay and ground glass. It was the Germans who created hard-paste porcelain using clay and feldspar instead of glass, which is close to the process that continues until today. In the 1700s, kaolin clay was found in England, and the British began making porcelain as well. So, in most European countries, they use “porcelain,” but in the United States, “china” is the more common term.

Now, when it comes to fine china and bone china, there are some differences. Bone china and porcelain are different due to their material composition. Bone china is usually more expensive than fine china, but it doesn’t mean the first is more durable than the latter. Some buyers think because it’s “bone” china, it’s stronger, but it really isn’t. The main reason why bone china is more expensive than fine china is because there’s a special ingredient: cow bone ash.

In making bone china, cow bone ash is mixed into the ceramic material to give it a warmer, softer-looking color and translucency. It’s lighter in weight than fine china and often has a warmer tone. So if you prefer a creamy white color in your dishes, choose bone china. But if you like it shiner with a heavy feel, choose fine china or porcelain. Either will be a beautiful addition to your dining table.

The firing process in creating the china is what makes differs the three materials. If the temperature is high and around 1,455° Celsius (2,650° F), it creates porcelain. If it’s fired at a temperature lower than that, around 1,200° (2,200° F), it creates fine china. This makes fine china softer than porcelain and makes it only suitable for applications like plates and cups. Porcelain is stronger and it can be used in other applications like as electrical insulators.

When it comes to bone china, the material undergoes two firing process. The first firing causes the product to shrink and around 20% of its pieces will crack and break. The second firing is done after the piece is glaze and causes the glaze to melt into the piece. The pieces that don’t crack or break are then decorated with final patterns, while some are hand-painted and sprayed.

Once you know the difference, it will be easy to differentiate bone china and fine china. The bone ash gives bone china a warm color, while fine china is a brighter white. You can see the difference if you hold the china up to the light, so you can see that the bone china has a translucent quality. Porcelain is a more durable material than either type of china.