Bone China Is Made from Actual Bone—And We Are Officially Fascinated and a Little Creeped Out
Plus, how to verify the authenticity of your collection.
When I was little and it was a very special occasion, my grandmother would set up a tea party for two. This was a rare event, too good for the everyday dishes she used at her Virginia home. It was even too special for her company china. For those special tea parties, she would pull out her mother's bone china pouring the tea into the delicate cups and eat crumbly cakes off the thin plates. I always felt incredibly grown-up and elegant while holding onto the frail handles of those bone china teacups, but I'm not sure whether I would have felt glamorous or spooked, if I had known that bone china is made from actual bone.
If that last line took you by surprise, you should know that fine china has almost always included bone, it's just that bone china has more of it than other types. Specifically, bone china is made up of at least 25% bone ash. The process of making bone ash is a bit complicated. According to the Ceramic Dictionary, bones leftover from making pet food are collected and treated to remove glue, which is used to make either glue or (fun fact!) can be used for sizing in high-end stationary. The bones are then calcined, a process that includes heating them to over 1800 degrees Fahrenheit, which changes the bones chemistry and sterilizes it. The remaining bone is ground down for bone ash, which contains calcium, phosphorus, and oxygen. The folks at Wedgwood, who know a thing or two about china, note, "The traditional formulation for bone china is about 25% kaolin, 25% Cornish stone and 50% bone ash. The industry minimum for bone content is 30% or higher." This formula varies from company to company.
While Mental Floss notes using bone ash as a ceramic additive was explored in the mid-1700s, it wasn't until Josiah Spode I used it in his pottery near the turn of the century that it started to become an industry standard. That shift was thanks to Josiah Spode II who was inspired by his father to perfect a formula for its use in 1796. The bone ash formula for china that Spode invented way back then is still in use by the Spode company (and many others) today.
So, why bone ash? The addition of bone ash, The Spruce Craft reports, helps makes the resulting dishes lightweight, stronger, durable, and with a creamy whiteness, while also giving bone china that trademark translucency. Per The Spruce, one of the easiest ways to verify the authenticity of bone china is to hold "any piece of bone china up to a light and place your hand behind it [and] you should be able to see your fingers through it."
It's this gorgeous result and the complicated, labor-intensive process that it requires, that china lovers believe justifies the higher price tag.