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The slaughter beneath the ‘bone China’  shimmer

Many years ago , I was invited to Sri Lanka to address a Rotary Club. My hosts were warm and went out of their way to show me the island. Before I was to leave, my host said that they wanted to give me a gift of a Noritake dinner set. I asked instead for the same money to be spent on a watercolour of the then almost  unknown painter  Senaka Senanayake . We went to his house and I got two beautiful paintings which I treasure today . Two days later , the then President of Sri Lanka, Mr  D.B.Wijetunga , asked me to tea and then gave me a Noritake tea set as a gift !

The tea set had "bone china" written on the underside. I paid no attention because , like most people , I thought that bone china just meant that the porcelain was thin , white and expensive with pretty patterns on it. Much later I learnt that bone actually meant bone and I was eating off oxen/buffalo/cow bones. The set now lies in a truck.

Bone china is a type of porcelain first developed in Britain in which bone ash made from ox bone is a major constituent.  It is characterized by whiteness and translucency.

How did this come about ? China was the first to invent "china" and it was a major import into England.  English manufacturers were keen to produce porcelain of the quality to be found in Chinese imports but they had no idea of how to make their porcelain translucent and yet tough. The first use of bone ash in ceramics is attributed to  Thomas Frye in 1748 in Bow China Works. In 1800 , Josiah Spode of Staffordshire’s Spode Porcelain  popularised it, by mixing it with kaolin and China stone.

Unfortunately bone china quickly became a popular commodity  for several reasons - the diminishing trade with China caused by very heavy import duties on porcelain (108% in 1799), less merchant shipping available because of the need to sustain naval and military forces overseas, the patronage of the Prince of Wales, leader of taste at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the growth of the professional and merchant classes who provided a market. It was easy for existing factories to convert to making bone china because the processes were the same as earthenware.

So bone china became a type separate from " fine china". Companies like Minton, Coalport, Davenport , Derby,  Worcester, New Hall, Wedgewood and Rockingham soon followed suit. Now it is made all over the world.

Bone china costs more because tons of animal bone have to be bought from slaughterhouses; cleaned , boiled and burnt in the open Without this ash component; china is not  ‘bone’ china.

Animal bone is first processed to remove any adhering meat. It is then treated to remove glue, which is processed and used in applications where glue is used and also for expensive paper. The raw bone which is left after the meat and glue have been extracted is then heated to about 1000 C at which temperature any residual organic material is burned off . Then it is finely ground with water and mixed with the other ingredients and then shaped into cups, plates etc and fired.

Since much early bone china was issued unmarked, it is often difficult to attribute the pieces. If the porcelain or china as it is commonly called does not have bone china written on it, the best way to make out is to hold up the piece of bone china up to a light and place your hand behind it; you should be able to see your fingers through it.  It is the bone that gives the china its transparent whiteness.

Spode’s  basic formula of 50% bone ash, and 25% each of china clay and china stone, remains the same today. In fact , the more expensive and finer the bone china , the higher the percentage of bone.

Should vegetarians use bone china ? Not just vegetarians, should anyone use it is the question.

These are the arguments that people give :

" The animal is not killed for the bone. This is simply a by product". Animals do die for it. In India, large animals like buffaloes and cows are NOT killed for their meat, as only a very small percentage of people eat it. They are killed for their skin and bones. We have the largest leather industry in the world, for instance, and it only uses cowskin. We do kill animals for the bones. In fact the varakh industry kills cows simply for their intestines.

"You didn’t kill the animal ". But your family members did by buying the bone china. Where there is no demand , there is no production.

" The china set is very old and has heirloom value. The animals are long dead". That may be true but you can prevent them from being killed now by not creating a demand for them.

You need to minimise your contribution to animal suffering and exploitation. After all, most vegetarians use medicines that have been tested on animals and some , like insulin, which are made of animal tissue like cow and pig. But using bone china is unnecessary.  Would you eat on animal bones ? The plate is 60 % bone. For me it is on par with using leather, silk and ivory.. Bone china is essentially a decorative item –  like wearing bones as beads or having a library of smelly leatherbound books.

Saying that you have it and therefore have to use it is another problem. If you use it , you create a demand for it in another person’s mind when he/she sees it. So put the crockery you have in a trunk and forget about it. I know it would be more practical to say sell it and give the money to a local animal shelter. But that would create a continuing demand. It’s like selling ivory or those dreadful dustbins that people used to make out of sawed off elephants’ legs.  Is it possible for you to enjoy a product of something else’s pain ?

Now there are companies that are making synthetic bone ash by mixing hydrated lime with phosphoric acid at a particular temperature . Sri Lanka has a factory in a village near Colombo which is making look- alike bone china without using bone ash. They use calcium phosphate instead. So look for one of these companies if you absolutely insist on having fine china.

Don’t contribute to animals being used and killed for nonsensical reasons. Don’t be like the Aggarwals of  Bharat Potteries in Jaipur who are vegetarians themselves but who take cow and buffalo bones and use it for their bone china factory.

To join the animal welfare movement contact  gandhim@nic.in

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