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Once you have bought (or fell in love with) your first ironstone piece, the obsession to collect it starts. Plates, sugar bowls, tureens... Chipped, stained, cracked... It doesn't matter how usable it is, the beauty of vintage and antique ironstone pieces becomes a lifetime "idée fixe". Those who caught the "bug" want their shelves filled with piles and piles of dreamy "terre de fer".

White & blue fantasia at one of my favourite vendors at Les Puces du Canal

The vintage ironstone pieces are all unique, and getting scarce as time goes by, but they are still one of the easiest way to add that French country flair to your home.

Digging into a very dirty mix of antique dishes at a French flea market - hunting for treasures!

What is ironstone?

In brief, ironstone is porous earthenware, made of clay mixed with feldspar, patented in early 19th century by Charles James Mason in Staffordshire, England. It was developed in efforts to find a substitute for porcelain that could be mass-produced for the cheaper market. Needless to say, it was an immediate success, and ironstone blanks were decorated with transfer patterns or hand painting to imitate Chinese porcelain.

What's in the name?

There is no iron in ironstone. It was named for its durability.

What to look for when you shop for ironstone, and how to recognize it?

Weight - when you take a piece of ironstone in your hand, it will always feel heavy. The sides of the ironstone piece will be thick, unlike the piece made of porcelain. Ironstone is stoneware that has been produced to feature a thinner and more refined appearance. It often looks like porcelain, but is sturdier and more durable. It is also more opaque, and it can be bright white or creamy colored.

Condition - when it ages, the glaze on ironstone pieces develops cracking, and some pieces start getting "tea stains" - these just add the charm and character! If you find a wonderful ironstone piece do not be deterred by a chip here and there. Many covetable antique dishes have lived, were used, and will have these signs of time.

French soup bowls piled up high at @lestresorsdedadou at Les Puces du Canal

Makers mark - most, but not all, ironstone is marked with a stamp on the bottom that is printed, impressed or both. In France the ironstone pieces are often stamped "terre de fer" underneath. The leading names of the ironstone "manufacture" are (or were) Sarreguemines, Digoin, Longchamp, H B & Cie, St Amand & Hamage, Choissy le Roi, Salins, Boulenger, and more. Each one with their own distinct makers mark which has changed over the years. There are many online resources that will help you to identify the age of the piece just by the look of the stamp underneath.

Many different makers marks underneath ironstone dishes

When you look for ironstone in France, you will see many faience pieces as well. Faience and ironstone are not the same (although often made by the same "manufacture"). Faience is earthenware glazed with a tin-based slip and often decorated with hand-painted motifs. Glaze is a liquid coating applied to ceramic ware before it is fired in the kiln. Ironstone (as we know) is a thick, heavy earthenware noted for its strength and white, porcelain-like appearance.

Mixing patterns is fun!

You will also see some pieces stamped "porcelaine opaque", which improperly designates certain fine earthenware made from kaolin and feldspar. It also takes the name of half-porcelain.

A tablescape at @lagrabotte - inspiration!

So - what to collect?

Pitchers, platters, cake stands, compotes, tureens, cups, plates... All white, or adorned with transferware patterns. You can focus on just white, but why limit yourself. Mismatched motives look so beautiful together! Collect what your heart desires!

An impressive selection of ironstone soupieres at les puces

How to care for your ironstone collection?

I always recommend hand washing your ironstone pieces. Modern dishwashers have higher temperatures that many older pieces can withstand. To keep your lovely finds looking good, hand wash them, and dry with a soft towel.

Don't use bleach, which can penetrate the glaze, dissolve it, eventually cause the clay to crumble and disintegrate.

For ironstone aficionados every piece in their collection is special. There is often a story to how a piece was found. Once it is in your home, that's it, it stays forever! Do share with me your favorite pieces, I am curious what makes your "ironstone heart" sing.

À bientôt!

For the current selection of French vintage and antique ironstone at My French Maison boutique please click HERE.

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