Stew Cues: A lesson in porcelain

Apr 17, 2017 by Alene Keenan

Stew Cues: by Chief Stew Alene Keenan

Yacht stews care for numerous ceramic and porcelain items, including dishes, decorative tiles, art pieces, and collectibles. These items say a lot about the standard and level of service that may be expected onboard.

Some yachts have three or more sets of expensive European porcelain dishware or “china”. Stews need to know the brand, the pattern name, and each piece name in their inventory. There are thousands of dishware patterns from different manufacturers in the United States and abroad. boasts 425,000 patterns. Interestingly enough, every U.S. president chooses his own china pattern, and Pickard from Illinois has produced china for several presidencies as well as for Air Force One. It even makes a special coffee cup that fits in a private jet cup holder.

Expensive dishware requires proper care and maintenance. Most pieces have a mark stamped underneath identifying the brand and specific care instructions. Hard-paste porcelain should be hand-washed and is not safe for the microwave, dishwasher or oven. Non-porcelain ceramic  such as stoneware and earthenware is typically used for more casual dinnerware. Many art pieces and collectibles are meant to be dusted and not washed at all, to avoid loosening any glued pieces.

The story of ceramics is fascinating, reflecting history, artistic heritage, traditions and creativity. The term ceramic refers to any item made of natural clay hardened by heat. About 10,000 BC, clay from river beds was formed into crude baskets and bowls and left to sun dry. They probably noticed that fire hardened the clay after items were discarded and burned, and voila, we have our first ceramics.

Three categories of ceramics are used in dishware. Earthenware or terra cotta is the oldest, dating from 1400-1200 BC. It is fired at lower temperatures (1800-2100 F) and must be glazed to be water tight. It is usually reddish color, chips easily, and is common in casual dishes and as bakeware. If you have been to Positano and the Amalfi Coast you have probably seen some beautiful terra cotta dishware in the shops.

Stoneware is made of a heavier clay and fired at higher temperatures (2200-2400 F). It is dense, impermeable and scratch resistant. Stoneware is microwave, oven, dishwasher, and freezer safe. It is sturdier than earthenware but not as strong as porcelain. Stoneware is a good choice for crew dishes.

Porcelain is a distinctive category of ceramics. It is correct to say that all porcelain is ceramic, but not all ceramic is porcelain, just as all Champagne is sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wine is Champagne.

In both soft-paste and hard-paste porcelain, the type of clay and firing temperature give different strength and appearance. Porcelain is fired twice to become fully vitrified. Kaolinite clay is used in fine porcelain. It is fired at 2200-2500 F, making it hard, impermeable, white, translucent, and resonant. Bone china is a sub-category that has 25-50 percent bone ash added, which gives it a warmer color and more translucent quality.

When Marco Polo first brought porcelain from China in the 14th century, it was worth nearly as much as gold. By the 1700s, highly coveted pieces of Chinese and Japanese porcelain were found in Royal and aristocratic collections, but porcelain was too expensive for the masses. Rare and exotic, it was a status symbol only the extremely wealthy could afford.

Europe was in love with porcelain and the quest was on. It took Europeans hundreds of years to learn how to make porcelain comparable with the master ceramists of China. Here are a few examples.

  • The Germans are officially credited with producing the first true hard-paste European porcelain in the early 1700s.
  • The Vincennes factory in France dominated European ceramics for many years, after King Louis XV became the owner. He moved the factory closer to Paris, and his constant innovations and endless funds soon overtook the German porcelain industry. Today the central France region of Limousin is known for its Limoges enamelware. And fine oak.
  • The Italians produced Medici and Vezzi porcelain.
  • Wedgewood was established in England in 1759 and became famous for its Queensware. Later on, British companies added bone to their china as an alternative choice.
  • Spanish porcelain goes back to Roman times, including Majolica whose origins can be traced to the Middle East. It was traditionally imported through Majorca, so anyone who has spent time in Palma has probably seen this colorful ceramic. Contemporary Spanish Lladro Porcelain is famous for its fine artistic works. Those who attended the Marine Industry Cares Foundation’s Chairman’s Gala earlier this year saw the gorgeous Lladro porcelain butterfly chandelier in the entryway.

The history of porcelain is fraught with adventure and espionage. My favorite story is that of the 18-year-old German alchemist Friedrick Bottger, who was held captive in a forest near Dresden by the Saxon king Augustus the Strong. He claimed he could turn lead into gold, and Augustus was obsessed with gold.

The alchemy didn’t work out so well, but eventually Bottger collaborated with Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus and they came up with the recipe for hard-paste porcelain. King Augustus probably resented that he ended up with porcelain instead of gold but nonetheless he released Bottger, who died five years later.

“King Augustus, reportedly a self-confessed shopaholic, never made money from the factory, as he kept the best pieces for himself,” according to “The European Obsession with Porcelain” by Thessaly la Force. “He died in 1733 at the age of 62, his kingdom in financial ruin but with a porcelain collection of 35,798 pieces”.

All that glitters in not gold, after all.

Alene Keenan is lead instructor of yacht interior courses at Maritime Professional Training in Ft. Lauderdale. She shares her experience from more than 20 years as a stew in her book, “The Yacht Guru’s Bible: The Service Manual for Every Yacht”, available at


About Alene Keenan

Alene Keenan is a veteran chief stew, interior training instructor/consultant, and author of The Yacht Guru’s Bible: The Service Manual for Every Yacht.

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