It's hard to believe it but my husband and I recently celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary. Today it is six years from the day we announced our engagement.
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As a newly engaged couple, we immediately started getting questions from both of our families which included "Where do you plan to register?" and "Have you thought about china?"
Choosing Fine China
The first question we asked ourselves at that point was whether or not we wanted fine china at all. I knew that one day I'd be inheriting 24 place settings of Noritake (Rose Marie) from my mother. My mother is still quite alive and nowhere near ready to hand that china over to me.
Would we actually use china in the meantime? If we only wanted china in order to have it sit in a cupboard or be on display in a curio, then there was no point in registering for it.
I grew up in a household where we regularly used china for any "special" event ranging from a Passover seder to getting a 700 in math on my SATs to it's a sunny day outside. My husband's family was much more casual.
We decided that fine china would fit our lifestyle and we didn't want to wait 30 years to get our own set.
Choosing a Manufacturer
I knew from the start that I wanted to register for Lenox china. Lenox has a long history and is well known for the formal state china that they manufactured for the White House. Do you recall the red china that Nancy Reagan ordered in the 1980's? That was Lenox.
Another deciding factor for me in choosing Lenox is that they have outlets all over the United States, including the factory itself in New Jersey. My parents lived in New Jersey at the time and I'd been to the sales in Cranbury too many times to count over the years. I knew that if we didn't receive all of the china we registered for, I'd be able to fill in the gaps at the factory with seconds. If you're careful, you can often find seconds with defects on the bottom of pieces where they never show or with defects so tiny that you can't even find them without a trained eye pointing them out to you.
Finally, when I was in graduate school, I lucked into a part-time job working in the President of the University of Virginia's home for catered dinners. During the semester I worked there, he hosted many influential people. Fine china was always used and the china was a special pattern by Lenox - a variation of the Jefferson pattern with the University's seal added. I saw first hand how well the china held up under extremely heavy use and I also became quite familiar with the different pieces.
Choosing a Pattern
The first thing my husband said to me after we decided to register for china was that it had to be "blue with no flowers". Okay. Blue with no flowers it is. I'm not big on blue and I love flowers but I can work with this. The second thing he said was that he wanted to have input on whatever I chose within those parameters.
"Blue with no flowers" was a hard requirement to fulfill back in the fall of 1997. I went to Hecht's and Macy's to browse where I saw the Mountain View, Royal Kelly and Federal Cobalt patterns. The first two were too informal for me and all three were white china. I really wanted ivory just because I think it's prettier and food looks better on an ivory plate than a white one.
One of my co-workers at the National Cathedral told me that I should check out Michael Round. That's where she was registered and they had dozens of catalogs and hundreds of patterns on display, more than at Bloomingdales where she was also registered. Before trekking down Wisconsin Avenue, I went to their website where I could see pictures of all of the patterns.
I started clicking away and before too long, there it was. Hamilton. It appeared to be ivory. Around the edge of each plate was a royal blue band, striped with gold on either side. Sitting on top of the band was a braid of gold, like entwined serpentines. I had to see this in person. It was time for lunch so off I went to see for myself.
The china was exactly what I thought it would be. It was simple and elegant, not fussy. No flowers. Blue (but not too much). I loved it at first sight.
The next day was a Saturday so I dragged my husband out to the store so he could give me his opinion. He said the china was perfect. The salesclerk asked us about our silver and crystal choices. I already inherited 12 places settings of Wallace Grande Baroque which happened to go nicely with the china. The china was simple; the silver ornate. We chose a simple crystal (Lenox Clarity) to tie the package together.
This pattern is part of the Presidential collection. Back when we registered, Lenox had many different "collections" such as "Debut" and "Presidential". What this refers to is the shape of the various individual pieces of china. A tea cup in one Presidential pattern will have the exact same shape in the other Presidential patterns. I have no idea if Lenox still has their patterns broken into collections or not. My information comes from a 1997 Lenox catalog that I discarded a long time ago.
Hamilton was first introduced in 1987 which means that the pattern has been around for a while. It's nowhere near as old as Autumn or Montclair. My mom was really surprised when I told her that Montclair was still an active pattern as that was her wedding china back in 1965. Unfortunately, Montclair was discontinued as of 12/2004.
Around the time Hamilton was introduced, two similar patterns also made their debut: Monroe and Tyler. Monroe had a maroon band instead of the blue while Tyler had a black band. Both of those patterns have been discontinued.
I worried about my pattern being discontinued. I shouldn't have since I have enough china to sink at least half of a battleship, but there are still a couple of pieces that I'd like to add to my collection. I'd like to get a covered casserole and some more fruit dishes.
Unfortunately, I received a letter in the mail from Lenox less than a month after I originally wrote this review. Hamilton is being discontinued but you can still order pieces directly from Lenox at 30% off retail through December 2004.
About the only pieces I've never seen in the Hamilton pattern are cream soup bowls and underplates. Those are the cute bowls with the handles on either side. They aren't common in most patterns from any manufacturer. I only bring this up because they were used regularly when I was at the University of Virginia and I own a set of cream soup spoons in my silver.
The usual pieces that make up a five piece place setting are a dinner plate, salad plate, bread and butter plate, tea cup and tea saucer. The plates and the saucer are all quite similar in design. Each has the gold braided blue band around the edge. Toward the center of the plate, about a third of the way in from the band, a thin gold trim line is placed.
The tea cups have the blue band around the rim of the cup with a small border of plain ivory china above. The rim itself is plated in gold. The handle is gold plated and I really like the handle a lot. Instead of having a rounded, swooping line to them, at the bottom where the handle meets the side of the cup, there's a flat indentation. This makes it easier to hold the cup and it's less likely to spill because the cup is steadier in your hand. The bottom of each tea cup has a small foot and it is plated in gold for a very elegant look.
Should you purchase a six piece place setting, the included pieces are the same as the five piece place setting with the addition of a rim soup plate. These are quite useful pieces with about an inch of rim around the bowl of the plate. Rim soup plates give your table a very formal look although I'll admit to feeling a bit uneasy when I serve cream soups in them. I really want those cream soup bowls! Reduced rim soup plates are also available but I've never laid eyes on one.
If you want a more casual table, you might prefer to purchase a four piece place setting. The pieces included in those are a dinner plate, salad plate, all purpose bowl and a mug. The all purpose bowl looks like a regular soup/salad bowl that comes with most casual china sets. The blue band is around the outside of the rim of the bowls and is placed similarly on the mugs.
Other pieces that you would normally purchase as place setting pieces include accent plates, fruit bowls, accent mugs, demitasse cups and demitasse saucers. I particularly like the fruit bowls because they are the perfect size in which to serve one scoop of sorbet for dessert. I find the accent plates and mugs to be a bit garish which is why I haven't bought any of them. They are trimmed in a very large version of the braid which I don't think translates very well. The braid is elegant and delicate in small form and decidedly not so when it is enlarged.
The primary serving pieces that most people consider are the 13" and 16" oval platters, open vegetables, covered vegetable, round serving bowl, sauce boat and salt and pepper shakers. The platters are ornamented in a similar manner as the plates. The open vegetable and round serving bowl are both decorated on the inside rim of the bowl which is the opposite of the all purpose bowls. The braided band is easily seen on all of the pieces. If you're a collector, the open vegetable actually comes in a large and a small size. The small open vegetable is very hard to find and I was lucky enough to get mine on clearance from Ross-Simons five years ago. I haven't seen it anywhere else, including Replacements, Ltd.
The sauce boat comes in two designs. The older design that I have has the boat with a separate underplate. The boat itself has one gold plated handle and I really like how the trim splits underneath the handle leaving a clean braided edge. The newer sauce boat has an attached underplate and a pouring spout on both ends. I like being able to lift the boat and only have drips form on one end.
I don't own the covered vegetable nor the salt and pepper shakers so I can't really comment on those. Personally, I prefer the look of crystal or Nambe salt and pepper shakers with this pattern.
For after dinner, you might want to invest in a teapot or coffee pot, a covered sugar bowl and a creamer or possibly a serving plate. The coffee pot is tall with an elongated gold plated handle. It holds about 6 cups of coffee so it's not something you'd use to serve a crowd. The teapot looks a lot like the coffeepot except it's shorter and squatter. My favorite piece is the sugar bowl with two gold plated handles. Serving plates are available in either 1 , 2 or 3 tiered versions. I've only seen these on eBay and at Replacements, Ltd.
What To Look For When Evaluating Seconds
In the rare case that you should find this pattern in an outlet or at the factory, here is the list of things I look for in evaluating whether or not a second is worth buying. I've bought about 10 pieces of second quality china in this pattern.
1. Check out the gold trim. If it's a teacup, is the handle completely gold? Are there gaps or chips in the banding? I did pick up a coffeepot for $20 once because it was missing a tiny piece of gold on the inside of the handle. The piece retails for over $300 if perfect. I thought it was worth the $280 in savings to have a piece with a defect that no one would normally ever see, especially a piece that I probably wouldn't use very often.
2. Look at the blue band and gold braid. On most pieces, the band will make a complete circle around the piece. The only piece I've come across where the band doesn't is the gravy boat. Where the band meets, there's often an overlap in the gold braid. It's rarely perfect, even in first quality pieces just because of the nature of the pattern. You really have to look to find the join, but it's there. Sometimes the join is smooth and sometimes it isn't. Look for as smooth a join as possible. Teacups are the hardest pieces to find with a smooth join from my experience.
Also, look at where the braid is positioned on the blue band. You don't want the braid touching the gold band that is directly above and below the blue band. You want the braid positioned as close to the center as possible, all the way around the piece. You also want the braid present all the way around the piece. Bits of missing braid are a common defect in seconds.
3. Look at the glaze. It should be as smooth as possible. The ivory color should be standard throughout. Again, I've bought pieces with small slubs but these slubs are on the bottom of the piece, again, where only the person washing the dish would ever see.
4. Look at the overall shape of the dish. I've only seen one second with a serious defect in that regard. It was a bowl with a lump sticking out on one side. Lenox is usually good about destroying truly defective pieces instead of putting them up for sale.
Care and Storage
It's recommended that if you do not store your china for display in a china cabinet, that you place either a thick plate protector or a paper towel between each plate or bowl when they are stacked. This will keep the plates from scratching each other.
Lenox sells china protectors for storage. There are different sizes for most of the popular pieces including dinner plates, salad plates, rim soup plates, bread and butter plates and saucers. The capacity for these pieces is supposed to be 12 items in each size but I've easily fit 17 in some cases. I think they would accommodate 18 but I haven't tried it and I don't need an extra place setting to find out!
A separate cup holder is available that has partitions between the spaces for each tea cup. Mugs will not fit in the cup holder but demitasse cups do. There are also protectors for most of the common serving pieces.
I've found that the china protectors from The Container Store also work well. I've used one of their cup holders and it stores my sugar bowls, creamer and gravy boat in addition to some teacups. I've adapted some of their other containers to hold some of my not so standard serving pieces. For example, the round serving bowl is sitting in a container meant for dinner plates.
While the manufacturer claims that Hamilton is dishwasher safe, I never put my china in the dishwasher. I don't trust the 24 karat gold trim to hold up over multiple wash cycles. The china is expensive and though strong, still delicate. It takes only a few more minutes to hand wash my china and I've been satisfied with the results.
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