What’s the Difference Between Ceramic and Porcelain Collectibles?

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What’s the Difference Between Ceramic and Porcelain Collectibles?

Some common characteristics of many collectibles are that they are innately charming and somewhat fragile, such as ceramic and porcelain collectibles. These items are beautiful, delicate, and rare, and many collectors go to great pains to locate and display them in fine cabinets. But finding the right item means knowing what to look for. Knowing the difference between ceramic and porcelain makes the search easier.

However, some Internet sites use the terms interchangeably. Some FAQ sites even claim that the words mean the same thing. This is inaccurate. Although porcelain is a type of ceramic, the reverse is not true. Just like not all wood is oak, not all ceramic is porcelain.

Defining Terms

Ceramic is a broad term that includes earthenware, boneware, pottery, and, yes, porcelain. The word "ceramic" is derived from a Greek word that means "pottery," and describes any article made of natural clay hardened by heat. This includes ceramic tiles that are found on bathroom floors and in some kitchens or other rooms where water might be splashing. However, there are many types of ceramic. The two variables of clay and heat determine an item’s ceramic type. Clay is formed by combining any number of organic substances, and the types of substances used determine the quality of the clay. The temperature at which the clay is baked when fired, as well as the baking duration, also vary greatly and determine the hardness of the end product.

Because the variables can be widely adjusted, it is easy to see why there are so many different types of ceramic, and why there is so much confusion. It is, after all, correct to refer to porcelain as ceramic because it is created from a special clay heated to a certain temperature. Porcelain is a subcategory of ceramics. However, the majority of ceramic items are not porcelain, and even some that are referred to as porcelain are not authentic, hard-paste porcelain.


The process of ceramic production began thousands of years ago. The earliest ceramics were ornamental rather than practical. This indicates that from the very beginning, ceramics have been prized for their aesthetic qualities. Ceramics have, however, become more functional. Today, they are still used to create items of beauty, such as garden statues, figurines, or decorative tiles. However, they are also used to create practical items like electrical insulators, fiber optics, and, of course, dishes. 

In terms of collectibles, including plates, tiles, figurines, and sculptures, the broad term "ceramic" is used when an item is not otherwise classified as porcelain, pottery, or stoneware. However, porcelain, pottery, and stoneware may also be referred to as"ceramics." Non-porcelain ceramic is typically used for more casual dinnerware, whereas porcelain is commonly used in display objects and other decorative items.

A ceramic item is not necessarily of a lesser quality than a porcelain item. Porcelain is a very specific subcategory of ceramics, or (to put it simply) just one of many types of items created from baked clay. Through the years, efforts by manufacturers to perfect the production of porcelain have led to the development of many new processes, resulting in the creation of many other high quality ceramics.


While ceramics have been around for thousands of years, porcelain is a comparatively new development. Porcelain is made from a clay that has a paste-like quality and is fired at high temperatures. The process was first mastered in China in the 1300s, and produces the white, glass-like, finish that we associate with porcelain.

When Europeans encountered Chinese porcelain, they were enthralled by its delicate beauty, and a flourishing China trade developed. Europeans sought to reproduce the technique, but China guarded the secrets of how to create it well. Eventually, Europeans learned many of the Chinese techniques, but they still encountered production problems due to the lack of a crucial ingredient. Kaolin, a key component of porcelain clay, had to be imported for further experiments, because it seemed to only exist in China.

Without easy access to kaolin, Europeans vigorously sought to create their own recipe for a porcelain clay compound comparable to the quality of that imported from China. They experimented with many different substances, including fine glass particles. Many of these experiments resulted in different kinds of (what is now known as) soft-paste porcelain.

And this is where some confusion about the terms arises. Porcelain is technically a specific type of ceramic, highly prized for its many fine qualities, but is reproducible in many areas of the world with only varying degrees of success. Thus, ceramics that aim to achieve the same level of quality as porcelain may be referred to as porcelain, although they do not technically qualify. True porcelain will often come with a certification for that reason.

A Look at the Differences

When considering whether a piece is ceramic or porcelain, keep these standard guidelines in mind. 



Is dense and blocks light from passing through.

Is often translucent to some degree, allowing vague shadows to be seen through it.

Color can help determine the type of clay used.

Is generally white, grey or cream colored.

Is often thicker, with a more sturdy appearance.

Is thinner, with a more delicate appearance.

Is too porous to be watertight without the application of a glaze.

Is watertight, even without glaze.

Where unglazed, the surface often has a chalky or grainy texture.

The surface is generally very smooth, even when unglazed.

Is often not as finely detailed as a comparable porcelain piece.

The fineness of the pasty clay used allows for intricate fine details.

Just from reviewing the descriptions, it becomes clear that porcelain is justly prized for its fine qualities. Given its ability to be uncorrupted by water, it is also clear why porcelain is often the preferred material for bathroom floor tiles and countertop tiles, more so than other types of ceramic, and certainly preferable to hardwood. Despite its seeming fragility, porcelain can actually withstand a great deal of wear. 

Why the Words Matter

Most collectors seek to collect a specific item, or a specific category of items. If a collector wants only porcelain pieces, it becomes important for the collector to understand precisely what porcelain is.

It is also helpful if the seller understands the difference, and labels items accordingly. Many collectors assume that if an item is listed as porcelain it meets certain standards of quality and composition. If a ceramic item is labeled as porcelain, the seller may appear amateurish, or even disingenuous.

Finding Ceramic and Porcelain Collectibles on eBay

Many trinket and gift shops sell ceramic and porcelain collectibles. They are also popular in antique stores. Shopping online at sites like eBay is a great way to search for specific items without having to go from store to store. Knowing that an item listed as ceramic may, in fact, be porcelain can add excitement to the search.

Keyword Search

Searching eBay listing titles for specific keywords is another strategy for locating items. For example, if you are searching for an antique China blue and white floral vase, type "antique China blue and white floral vase" (without quotation marks) into the Search box.

Remember to use a plus sign between consecutive words in a keyword phrase. After conducting the initial search, try different misspellings of the name of the item, thinking up several variations. This will likely bring up additional listings. Visit eBay’s Search Tips page for more tips on searching with keywords.

Advanced Search

eBay’s Advanced Search feature allows for a more precise search and offers the option to search by seller, buyer, or store. The search results can also be narrowed to "All of these words," "Any of these words," or "Exact phrase."


Buying Ceramic or Porcelain Collectibles on eBay

Once you find the ceramic or porcelain piece you are looking for, it is time to make the purchase. Before you do, there are a few things to keep in mind so that your buying experience is a positive one.

Know What You are Purchasing

Carefully read the details in the item’s listing. If there are unanswered questions, ask the seller to answer them by clicking on the seller’s user name in the upper right hand corner of the listing page.

If the purchase is expensive, make sure the seller will insure the item when it ships. Do not forget to figure delivery costs into the final price, and always make sure to complete the transaction on eBay (with a bid, Buy It Now, or Best Offer). Transactions conducted outside of eBay are not covered by eBay protection programs.

Never pay for the purchase using instant cash wire transfer services through Western Union or MoneyGram. These payment methods are unsafe when paying someone you do not know.

Know The Seller

Research the seller to feel positive and secure about every transaction. Check that they have a good feedback rating and find out how many transactions have they completed. Look to see what percentage of positive responses they have. It is also important to see what kind of comments buyers leave and if the seller has received praise.

Most top eBay sellers operate like retail stores and have return policies. Find out if the seller offers a money-back guarantee. If so, find out what the terms and conditions are.

Money Back Guarantee

In the unlikely event that the item is not received or that it is not as described, eBay's Money Back Guarantee will cover the purchase price plus original shipping.


Unfortunately, many people do not understand that there is a difference between ceramic and porcelain, and that while porcelain is ceramic, not all ceramics are porcelain. The mistake is often innocent. Internet advisors sometimes claim that they are the same thing, so clearly many people do not know there is a difference.
Understanding the differences makes for a wise collector. And, if collecting porcelain is your intention, knowing the difference means finding treasures that someone else might not have seen.