Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The End of an Era--Spode Begins Overseas Production of Blue Italian, Then Goes Bankrupt

I've collected Spode Blue Italian since I was ten years old. I have some pretty interesting pieces in my collection, like the Cheese Wedge Dish that I begged for--and received from my dear mother--for high school graduation. People might have thought it was a little odd for a ten year old to begin collecting china, but that's just the way I was! From the time I was young I recognized the beauty of the products and I still remember reading about transfer ware in Victoria Magazine and being fascinated with the time consuming, labour of love involved in creating each piece of porcelain.

So, it seemed natural to use my wedding registry as an opportunity to complete my collection. I set up my registry at Caplan Duval, here in Canada. I ended up waiting over a year due to some mysterious "reorganization" at the Spode factory. Finally, 15 months later, my first shipment of china arrived.

I was completely crestfallen when I opened the box. I hardly recognized the china. It was an odd, almond colour, with an indistinct blue-ish pattern that seemed like a caricature of the original. Moreover, the plates in the 5 piece place setting did not even stack properly with my old set because they were sized incorrectly.

Spot the knockoff:

Businesses seem to apply a "one size fits all" solution to economic challenges. Outsourcing is viewed as the universal cookie-cutter response to poor sales. In their letter to my mom, the people at Spode suggested that outsourcing was their only option. For legal reasons, I cannot quote their letter on The Earthly Paradise, but their overall argument was that customers would prefer to purchase Spode products at a lower price, than spend more for Spode that had been made in England.

The next day, we discovered that Royal Worcester, the maker of Spode, was bankrupt. I wonder why!

Outsourcing is a difficult concept for me. I would personally much rather spend twice as much for a quality product made by artisans than a cheap knockoff produced by workers in a foreign factory being paid pennies an hour. I firmly believe that unhappy workers cannot create beautiful work. It doubtless comes from reading too much William Morris, but I firmly beleive in artisan work, and I don't care whether it's profitable or not! Morris and Company was always a profitable business, in that it did not lose money. But it also did not make the kind of obscene profits that most business today seem to believe they require in order to compete in the global marketplace.

I continue to hope that whichever corporation purchases Royal Worcester has better businesses ideas, but I'm not holding my breath. It seems that the world's former luxury goods producers have completely lost sight of what made their products worth having in the first place.

You can read more about Spode/Royal Worcester's financial difficulties in the Tri-City Herald.


Amanda said...

Wow that's awful. And they wonder why they bankrupt!

Margaret said...

I know! It's so strange that companies don't realize they'll lose their customers if they betray them.

alice c said...

I have a huge collection of Spode and it grieves me deeply to think that it may become an historic rather than a living collection. I find it incredible that two companies producing high quality china can suddenly disappear.

Alan Griggs said...

What an outstanding article. I cannot agree more with the author's sentiments. I have also been buying Spode for over twenty years and used to live just a few miles from the factory where I was a regular visitor and on first name terms with some of the staff. The news of Spode's bankruptcy and mismanagement has upset me almost to the point of hysteria. I can barely bring myself to say this, but it is the end of the road for Spode. Even if a buyer is found (and I am in no doubt this will happen), the historic Church Street site will be sold off and production will be moved entirely to Indonesia and China. The company's disastrous decision to outsource production overseas has proved pivotal in its downfall. The whole point of buying Spode is that you are buying some of the best - if not probably the best - ceramics in the world made in England by English craftsmen of superior materials and to the highest standards ever known. Spode may retain a small staff of skilled decorators, but that will be about it. The cheap and nasty molds will be shipped in from Asia. My advice is to seek out quality used items with the MADE IN ENGLAND backstamp. My God, Josiah I & II would turn in their graves if they knew how their great name was being raped. What an insult - to the craft of pottery making, to the workforce, to the customer, and to the historic name of Spode.

Johnny said...

Spode perfected the technique of blue underglaze printing and perfected the formula for fine bone china over 200 years ago. And now their wares are rolling off production lines in Asia as if they were cheap toys. This is absolute madness. Relocating production overseas is not the answer in this case. No-one wants to buy cheap Spode. They will buy other brands made in China, brands no-one has ever heard of. Most of my Spode dinnerware is about 30 years old and it still looks and feels like new. The cheap rubbish from China will last about a month before the glaze starts to deteriorate and scratch --- if it doesn't chip and crack beforehand. People will spend hundreds on a new TV but not, it seems, on a quality set of china which will last a lifetime and give hours of pleasure at breakfast, lunch and dinner time. Times, it seems. have changed. I'm very sorry for that.

Margaret said...

Thank you so much for you insightful comments, Alan and Johnny!
--Unfortunately, Alan, it doesn't look like Spode will even be retaining a handful of decorators. The plates I received are so different from the originals that it's impossible anyone familiar with spode approved them.
--I know what you mean, Johnny. I have a number of pieces that belonged to my Grandmother and still are good as new . What a terrible loss of a legacy. I hope that other companies, like Waterford, will at least learn from Spode's sad example.

Margaret said...

Oh, and Alice, I couldn't agree more! When I first started collecting Spode, one of the main reasons was that I believed it would be around forever. I mean, come on, Blue Italian has been around for nearly 200 years! The chances it would disappear were so slim I was sure I'd be adding to my collection for years to come.

Such a tragedy.

Alan Griggs said...

Margaret, I think if Spode is to continue producing high end ranges such as Lancaster Cobalt (as used by the Prince of Wales) then they will have to keep a team of skilled painters on hand locally. There are still around 400 employees left in Stoke. Alas. you are probably correct about the transferware ranges - they will be produced entirely in Asia.

I live in the USA now but still have family in Staffordshire, so I will ask them to find out what exactly is going on. I know that the museum is closed now and the factory shop is closing down as I write.

If world governments see fit to save banks from collapsing in the current financial crisis, I only wish the British government could have saved Spode!

Anonymous said...

what a shame about Spode. i am conflicted about outsourcing. I agree with your sentiments completely. but as we are not in a financial position to spend money on Spode china (or large TVs or anything else much) sometimes the cheap outsourced stuff has to do. i dont agree with companies that outsource their production to cut costs, produce poor quality goods but still charge high prices.

Margaret said...

It's just a fact of life that some inexpensive things have to be made in China to keep prices low. But the biggest reason companies outsource is in order to fatten their profit margins. I don't see how they can sleep at night, but that's just me!

Fete et Fleur said...

I agree wholeheartedly!


Mollie said...

Do the Asian made items feel as well as look inferior, Margaret? That's a teriffic blog; I couldn't have put it better myself. For generations Spode has set the standard by which others are judged, so I am surprised and indeed upset that they would allow their name to be printed on sub-standard wares. I've had a 30 year love affair with Blue Italian and share Alan's sense of grief about what has happened to this great company.

Lady Jane said...

Margaret, you should email this blog and comments to Spode at spodeinfo@spode.co.uk. No-one I've spoken to wants to buy the new stuff made in Malaysia, China and India. They want to see the "Made in England" backstamp! I've contacted over half a dozen retailers both in the UK and here in the US, and none of them stock any English made Spode any more. One or two have a few items left, that's all. Some of them have even apologized to me about the situation and say the new stuff just isn't selling. How surprising is that?

Margaret said...

Thanks so much for the comments, Lady Jane and Mollie!

I'm not surprised that the made in asia products aren't selling, but I'm afraid Spode doesn't really care, because it's already been sold to a new company. I think the new owners are probably just hoping they can get a contract to sell the new cheap blue italian at Walmart, Target or other cheap discount stores. It makes me terribly sad, but I bet you anything that will be their next move!

acornmoon said...

I have worked with Royal Worcester and visited the Spode factory many times in Stoke. It was more than a factory, it was a village and a pleasure to visit. So many skilled craftsman and women lost their jobs and a way of life disappeared. The same thing happened to Royal Doulton and it breaks my heart.

You may be interested to know that English bone china is still being manufactured in Stoke-on Trent, I have just posted a short piece on one of our survivors.

We have also seen the "made in England" back stamp on cheap foreign imports. It is illegal but happens all the time. Also, "designed in England", not illegal but maybe slightly misleading.

Margaret said...

Thanks, that's really interesting, acorn moon!

I'm not surprised to hear that importers have been putting the "made in England" stamp on their products, or the more misleading "designed in England." It's a slippery slope once you start moving production overseas!

Anonymous said...

Hia Margaret, I thought I had posted here already but I must have lost the connection during posting.

I have some Spode and what you have been sold is not up to the usual standard of Spode tableware that you would expect.

I pointed a friend at this post and she said that she had started seeing real Spode in TK Max at reasonable prices. I think you have TJ Max in the US. Perhaps some will have made their way there?

Margaret said...

Hi Melanie,

How recently did you buy your spode? Spode only started manufacturing overseas just reacently.

I'm not surprised that Spode is selling their new stuff at TJ Max. That's probably the only place that would sell it! Unfortunately, I won't be able to check it out, as we don't have TJ Max in Canada.

Simon said...

Margaret, I found out today from a dealer friend in England who is raiding the factory store for me for English made items, that the first production runs of Italian from Asia were faulty. They should not have been boxed and sold as new. The sizes now conform to the original sizes ie: a full 27cm for the dinner plate instead of 25cm, as had first rolled of the line. Same with the smaller plates and bowls, so now the transfers should fit properly and everything should match with your "proper" Spode. The only thing that doesn't match, of course, is the quality.

Margaret, you have made lots of new friends here who feel as passionately about Spode as you do. It may be beyond the scope of your blog here, but if you want the email address of my dealer in Stoke-on-Trent, let me know. He will obtain mint quality brand new English Spode for you at wholesale prices. He has access to the factory store and the Spode warehouse. Production dates range up to A6 (2006).

Anonymous said...

There seems to be some misinformation going around. Firstly, Spode has yet to find a buyer. It hasn't been sold on yet. Secondly, the factory in Stoke is still operational and going strong. I know this, because I went on a factory tour yesterday! The only part which has closed is the museum which is owned by a trust separate from the company. I counted over 150 people working in the factory, and there is still a team of painters and decoraters working upstairs. Among the patterns I saw being produced were Italian, the various Blue Room designs, Christmas Tree, Stafford Flowers and the Cobalt range. So, I went away feeling very happy that the old Spode is still alive and kicking and that the most skilled artisans in Staffordshire are still in employment--at least for now.

Mike B. Staffordshire.

Margaret said...

Hi Mike,

I'm glad to hear that there is some production going on at the factory in England, but from the letter I received, it doesn't sound like that will be going on for long.

It sounds like Spode is testing out the inferior asian products in Canada and the U.S. to see what the customer reaction will be. But even if customers leave in droves, they will continue to move production overseas, simply because they feel they cannot afford it.

joco said...

What a chilling (and sadly, accurate) summing up of life today.

I came here in down-hearted mood, looking for William Robinson's neglected wild garden and finding your post. Now I am even more depressed about the state of the world. I never cared for Spode personally, but that doesn't mean that I don't grieve over yet another English quality artisan company gone.
I am still not used to Liberty of London gone mushy.

How are you going to solve your list problem? Ebay?

Anonymous said...

Simon, please send me the name of your dealer in England. My wife is threatening me if I don't find a source of Blue Italian fast. She needs to complete her collection (with the real 'made-in-England' variety). Thank you so much in advance. If you don't want to publish your contact's information, then please email me at john8154 at the hotmail dot com mailbox. Thanks again for your help with this important matter.

Anonymous said...

I found these postings after surfing the Internet for answers on why my Spode Christmas Tree sets that I have been gifted the last three years have been made in Malaysia. I have a set of the cups that have had the green paint at the top of the cups chip off, and then repainted. It looks awful. Talk about disappointing. My mother worked in retail selling fine china for years. When I visited her the other day, we pulled every piece of her Christmas Tree pattern out to see if it was made in England. It was. But, she has had it for many years. She insisted there is no way my Spode sets could be made anywhere but in England, and that they must be “fake.” I will be sad to report to her tomorrow that Spode is now manufactured in other places that obviously have no standards of quality or respect for the consumer whom is spending their hard-earned money on something that is supposed to be a cherished family tradition. I feel terrible that the person who spent the money on this dinnerware trusting in the reputation of the Spode name gifted such crud. My mother has promised to hand down her "Made in England" Christmas Tree pattern to me; although I do not look forward to the day she will no longer have use for it, I am glad to know that I will be able to own, and pull out the true Spode Christmas Tree china, between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and carry on the family tradition my mother created. Thanks to all of you for your comments, and helping me unravel the mystery of my disappointing discovery.

Anonymous said...

Margaret, It was helpful to read your blog, though what I found out was worse than I had known before! I have just purchased a Christmas Tree Spode creamer and sugar bowl with lid for $125.00 U.S.A. at a "replacement" site here! It was very upsetting just to see numbers on the bottom. I sent an e-mail asking where they were made, only to receive a turse message back saying that they were "outsourced" under expert supervision! "Made in England" is what "made" the china! I wish that I could find a place which would sell authentic English Spode! I am sorry for your "loss".

Laura said...

Thanks everyone, for your helpful comments. It lifts my spirits to find others who are as deeply saddened by Spode's decision to outsource and its subsequent bankruptcy.

Most of my Christmas Tree set is made in England, but it looks like I'll have to rely on ebay for additions to the collection. You can tell the difference between English- and Malaysian-made plates in the touch. Asian-made plates feel grainy. English-made plates feel smooth and glossy.

Simon, please send the name of your dealer in England or email me at laura_white93 at hotmail dot com

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with how heartbreaking and disgusting this is at the same time. Some of these companies have been in business for over a hundred or two or even three hundred years where they were originally founded. I had already told Oneida and Pflaltzgraff here in the US that I would no longer buy their products after they moved overseas. They are apparently going into bankruptcy, too.

If you want to find some more of your Blue Italian Spode made in England, try Replacements, Ltd. in Greensboro, North Carolina, United States. They are great!
Best wishes,

Margaret said...

Thanks, Kitty.

Anonymous said...

Spode was at one time at the forefront of quality. They produced wares for royalty, they produced beautiful parian statuary in the late 19th century, and they employed artist such as Charles Ferdinand Hurten, Samuel Alcock, and William Yale to create beautiful hand painted vases and plaques

I think that the key for Spode, if they wanted to keep production in England, is to differentiate there product from the mass produced products coming out of Asia. They would have to get back to their roots and return to the quality of the past by producing items where English craftsmanship adds unique value to the product.

As an example, I would like to note that a lot of hi fi audio electronics are produced in Asia where labor is cheap. However the truly good stuff that is well engineered like Mark Levinson, McIntosh and other brands that require highly skilled labor are still made in the United States, also Bowers and Wilkens speakers are still made in the UK.

Anonymous said...

Many months on now but here in Kansas I am unable to find out what has happened now to SPODE. Is the factory closed down? I can'r even seem to find anything on the web about it-- I was lucky to come across you blob. I would appreciate any info and update on where the factory is today August 25th 2009.
THanks Judy

Anonymous said...

Judy, even more months on now, and over a year since Spode called in the administrators.

A lot of people will know this by now. The trade names and intellectual property rights of Royal Worcester and Spode were purchased by the Portmeirion Group of Stoke-on-Trent in April 2009. The historic Church Street site, alas, was not part of the deal. Ceramics will never be made there again, ending a 240 year old era during which the finest wares in the world were produced.

Spode lost it's Royal Warrant, held since 1806, upon ceasing trading. Spode produced the china for the Titanic, the Queen Mary, British and European aristocracy, and of course, the British Royal Family.

The Spode museum and archives, a separate entity from the business, was moved to Stoke-on-Trent City Museum.

Now for a bit of good news. Go to www.spode.co.uk and you will see that Portmeirion has started making "Italian" again in Stoke-on-Trent! "Stafford Flowers" has also just been re-introduced. "Woodland" and "Christmas Tree" are also in production; the latter in China, unfortunately. But Portmeirion (one of the few genuine success stories in the tableware industry) is committed to bringing back production to Staffordshire, partly in response to the huge backlash against cheap imports from Asia.

For me, however, as a Spode collector of 30 years, things will never be the same again. Spode which comes from anywhere other than that wonderful site on Church Street in Stoke-on-Trent just isn't Spode. It was my favourite place on Earth, and I still haven't got over the events of the last 12 months.

James, Staffordshire, UK

Anonymous said...

Oh, I forgot to add that most of the Church Street site contains buildings which are "listed" by English Heritage (a government agency). What this means is they are of exceptional architectural and historical significance, and cannot be demolished.

The 9.5 acre site is also part of a conservation area designated by Stoke-on-Trent city council.

The council is, in fact, in the process of raising funding to purchase the entire site for about 5 million pounds (around 8 million US dollars) so they can control exactly what goes on there in the future. I think there is talk of a ceramics museum combined with other small scale retail, residential and recreational land use. The important thing is that much of the site will remain the same, because the buildings are protected.

Hope this is useful info for you all. James.

Anonymous said...

hi,after working at spode for 24 years as a free hand painter i am glad to see people still care.spode ended about a year ago with no workforce left.The site is up for redevelopment.

susan said...

thanks for your blog, am sorry for the spode british workforce. I didn't know about the takeover and have just purchased 3 storage jars on sale from £95 to £45. Imagine my confusion when I saw "made in china" stickers on the bottom.I assumed that a good shop with all the spode displayed would not be hiding anything. Will be looking more carefully at all china in future.

Anonymous said...

I must be the last person on earth to learn of this. However, I recently was looking at some Spode at a retail shop dumbfounded of all the Asian ceramics. It just seemed to me that the quality wasn't there either, but the prices remained the same. While my wife and I aren't collectors, we purchased a fair amount of Christmas Tree in the late 90s. And, on our vacation in fall of '04, spent a couple of wonderful days in Stoke-on-Trent, purchasing seconds (hardly inferior)and overstocks at fabulous prices. Now we appreciate every piece. And oddly, I found a new English made (last one)teapot at a retailer while in California. Now that I understand what has happened, I just called the merchant and the teapot is now in transit to me here in Oregon. It will likely be the last piece purchased.

Sadly, we've seen the same situation here in the US with Lenox. Once again we are so lucky to have stocked up because it will never be the same again.

Ken in Portland

PhillyBurgh said...

According to their website, http://www.spode.co.uk/template-99.php?page=231&current_section=507 the manufacture of Spode Blue Italian has returned to Stoke-On-Trent. Good news all around!

Anonymous said...

I just popped into T J Maxx here in St Louis and to my shock I found Portmeirion Botanical garden square pasta bowls and the plates for $12.99. They also had Botanical Roses square dinner plates, $14.99!

I have collected Portmeirion Pottery for many years, building up each piece as I could afford to buy it. My husband and I were given a starter set from family for a wedding present and each time I visit a shop that stocks the china I will buy a piece, if I can afford it!

So I was really amazed to see it in T J Maxx and of course I thought "What a bargain! I have to buy it. It must be seconds from the factory!"

I was even more shocked to see, when I turned the plate over, that it had "Made in China" printed on the T J Maxx sticker. At first I thought T J Maxx must have marked the pottery up incorrectly and I was pretty confused. That is when I started to investigate and found this blog.

When you look at the piece from T J Maxx, the Portmeirion logo in green is the same but listed under it is the following:

Susan Williams-Ellis
botanic garden
dishwasher microwave freezer safe

When you look at an original piece it does have the same logo then:

POMONA (The style is in capitals)
By Susan Williams-Ellis
Oven to Table.
Dishwasher, Microwave
& Freezer Safe.
Made in Britain

There is no number listed under Made in Britain like on the one from T J Maxx. Also it doesn’t have Oven to Table printed on it which each original piece always has.

So as you can see, once I take the T J Maxx "Made in China" sticker off the piece, there will be no way that anyone will know where it was made. Only somebody who really knows the pottery will be able to tell that it was made in China!!
I can see what they will be saying on the Antique Roadshow in 100 years from now! "Oh this piece, even though it is beautiful was not made in Britain because in 2009-10 they moved the factory to China! And how do I know this - all the original pieces made up to 2009 have "Made in Britain" printed on the bottom of the piece so I am very sorry but this piece is worth substantially less." Good luck grandchildren if you think granny is passing you a piece of valuable beautiful British pottery! Unbelievable.

I can't believe that the company would do this to such loyal customers. It makes me very angry and it makes me feel as though they are duping customers into thinking that it is one thing and actually providing something that is of a lesser value.

I visited the seconds shop in Portmeirion last month and was surprised that it was fairly empty of stock. My friend and I asked where the China was made because we would have liked to have toured the factory. They were pretty vague at the factory shop but after a while mentioned Stoke-on-Trent however after reading everyone's blog entries and finding the plates at T J Maxx, I realize that they must have also moved their production overseas to China!

I do hope that they will not go the same way as Spode has. It sounds as though now they have added Spode to their portfolio they are making the pottery once again in Staffordshire which is a good thing.

So why would they start to produce their own brand in China! In my opinion, this pottery is special and so is Spode. Both lines have always been marketed as high-end. If it suddenly it becomes available at Wal-Mart it will no longer maintain its exclusivity and of course it will lose many of its loyal customers.

I love Spode and also have quite a bit of it so I am very sad to hear of its demise. I am more than happy to pay the extra for the beautiful pottery made in the UK. So Portmeirion needs to buck up their ideas and listen to their customers!!

What in the world are they thinking? Their value is in the uniqueness of their brand, the beauty of the artistry of each piece and the fact that it is a British-made item so sending production overseas is madness from a marketing and business perspective.

Cheryl said...

Has anyone seen any England-made Christmas Tree pattern in TJ Maxx or Marshall's this year?

The Traveling T said...

I understand they went out of business in 2009. Who is making the 2010 Christmas tree plates? I have 5 Christmas plates from 1939 that I would like to find a good home. Anyone interested, please email arep1998@hotmail.com. Thanks!!