Bone china dishes have been around for a very long time and can be found in most china buffets, old and new. Several processes are involved in the making of bone china, but the ingredient that sets it apart from fine china, is the component of bone ash that is included in its manufacture.
Hence where the name bone china comes from, and without this ash component, china is not really 'bone' china. It is also usually more expensive than other china, and this is justified by the processes and labour involved in its making.
A piece of bone china contains at least 25% of bone ash, and this compound not only adds strength and white color to the china, but also makes it translucent. Not totally transparent, but enough for the light to pass through it.
Generally, bone china is registered and its trademark and pattern can be found under each piece. However, over time these can become difficult to read, and it's always good to know you can quickly verify its authenticity.
If you hold up any 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 also has a certain clear ring, if you 'flick' the edge of a cup. However, identifying this sound does take practice.
Bone china is stronger than it appears, but care should still be taken when handling these dishes. Some newer pieces may be marked 'dishwasher safe', but I recommend always handwashing with a mild soap.
Dishwasher detergents are very harsh and over time will fade the pattern on your good dishes. There is also a possibility of these becoming chipped from rattling against other dishes during the dishwashing process.
Many bone china patterns have gold or metallic trims and bands, and these should never be placed in a microwave.
Bone china has lasted through generations and are beautiful heirloom pieces to hand down to the next one. But don't be afraid to use it, it is made to be enjoyed. In fact, tea and coffee tastes the best in bone china cups. I can attest to that - try it!