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Nwi Times: A Bold Palette

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by BARBARA ROLEK March 3, 2005 Northwest Indiana News

It's a party on a plate. Or a teapot, or an egg cup. Even a clock knows how to par-tay when it's Fiestaware. With bright primary colors and whimsical shapes, the china comes by its name honestly.

Fiesta, as those in the know call it, is the most popular pattern produced by the Homer Laughlin China Co. in Newell, W.V., and is considered a modern collectible.

Designed by ceramist Frederick Hurton Rhead in bright colors to lift the spirits of Depression-era housewives, the first Fiestaware came rolling out of the kilns in 1936.

By 1972, when the market was saturated with colorful dishes, Homer Laughlin stopped Fiesta production to concentrate on its other lines. Fortunately, due to overwhelming demand by consumers who missed them, Fiestaware was brought back in 1986.

Today's version is dishwasher-, microwave-, oven- and freezer-safe with a lead-free glaze. It comes in cinnabar, cobalt blue, scarlet, tangerine, periwinkle blue, shamrock, turquoise and a raft of other colors.

Fiesta snobs disdain post-86 Fiesta, while others collect both vintage and new pieces, using the latter for everyday use.

Old or new -- how can you tell if it's the real thing?

The hallmark art deco rings that encircle every piece, for one, says Dale Muehler, co-owner with Larry Szymanowski of Colorful Cupboards in Hammond, a store specializing in vintage and new Fiestaware.

Another way is to look at the bottom. It should bear an ink stamp under the glaze or a pressed-in hallmark. Very rarely is a piece unmarked.

A really old piece will have three small white spots on the back where it rested on a triad in the days before the glazing process was automated.

Muehler has an impressive personal collection of 4,000 pieces.

"Fiestaware is doing the same thing for people it did during the Depression -- brightening up a mood, a room, what have you," he says.

Muehler usually can put his hands on a coveted piece for a collector in short order, and is a member of the Homer Laughlin Collectors Association.

"I like to combine the colors, as most collectors do, and I actually use the china. I have one set for everyday use and the other set is my retirement fund," Muehler says with a laugh.

A typical five-piece place setting of new Fiesta runs about $25. Certain demonstration and small issue pieces can range from $3 to $10,000 in value.

"A good example is a marmalade or mustard jar with a lid, which can run $700 or $800. A No. 1 nesting mixing bowl with a lid would sell for $2,000," he says.

On average, a new color is introduced yearly while other colors are retired, because either it wasn't popular or to up the value of that particular color.

Twenty-one colors have been developed since the reintroduction of Fiesta in 1986 and seven colors have been discontinued, among them yellow, lilac, sapphire, chartreuse, pearl gray and juniper, making them highly collectible.

The newest color will be introduced at the International Home & Housewares Show March 20 to 22 in Chicago and is anxiously awaited by Fiesta aficionados.

There's a collector born every minute

Fiesta collectors abound in the region. Elida Abeyta, of East Chicago, got hooked on her grandmother's set.

But it wasn't until 10 years ago that she started her collection with persimmon, pink, powder blue and mint.

"Today I have 10 kitchen cabinets full of Fiesta, not including what's on the counters or in drawers and I have no intention of stopping. It's like searching for the Holy Grail, looking for the shape or color you don't have," Abeyta says.

She hopes the gift of a Fiesta tea set to her 4-year-old granddaughter will ensure the passing of the Fiesta gene. Her sister, Alice Mendoza, already has it.

Mendoza, who lives in Valparaiso, built her house around her Fiestaware cabinet.

"I actually designed my kitchen to accommodate a 7-foot by 7-foot 1930s glass cabinet I use to show off my collection. I stuck with a neutral color palette for the room so the brilliance of the china would contrast," says Mendoza, whose favorite shade is the discontinued chartreuse.

"We can't wait for the new color to come out. My guess is that it will be in the purple family," she says.

If you build it, they will fill it

Carol Gutyan, of Schererville, started collecting in 1980. She has amassed so many pieces -- around 1,200 -- her son built her a cabinet that stretches from the kitchen into the garage and cut out a wall between a bedroom and the living room for another case.

"But I'm not going to stop because they keep coming out with new colors and I want them all. When I run out of room, I'll give some to my daughter-in-law. It's like giving away one of my children, but at least I can go there and visit. It won't be long and she'll be running out of room, too," Gutyan says with a laugh.

Gutyan used to spend a lot of her waking hours looking for Fiesta. Now it's just a few hours a week at garage sales, antiques stores and on eBay.

"There's one piece that keeps eluding me -- a coffee mug in chartreuse. I have 17 different colors of that one shape but can't find the chartreuse," Gutyan says.

It's all about the colors

Time and time again, it seems to be the colors that draw new collectors like Karen Reitz, of Schererville, to Fiestaware.

"I saw a display at Marshall Fields 15 years ago and thought it was so pretty, I started buying pieces for my hope chest," Reitz says.

Married 10 years in September, Reitz has 12 place settings, pitchers, vases and bowls that she displays above her kitchen cabinets.

"I love when company says 'I want to sit at this table because I love the colors.' That's what keeps me shopping for Fiestaware -- the colors," Reitz says.

Magnificent obsession

Veronica Pearcey Schmitt, who grew up in Merrillville and now lives in Chicago, started collecting Fiestaware in high school.

"By the time I had my driver's license, I was combing the antique mall in Crown Point looking for the stuff. I had so much, I overtook my mother's china cabinet," Schmitt says.

It was her grandmother's and aunts' pieces that planted the collecting bug in her. The colors were so fantastic, she says.

Today, she has mostly vintage pieces and all the colors. The metal kitchen cabinets in her 1920s-circa home are a good foil for her coffee pot, carafe, nesting bowls and 20 salt and pepper shakers.

A blender of the highest order, Schmitt has a strict rule -- your cup and saucer cannot match.

"I never started collecting as an investment. It's a sentimental pastime for me. It connects me with my family's past," Schmitt says.

"But if you're in it for the money, go for the serving pieces like sugar bowls, creamers and so on. That's where the money is."

Where to find vintage and/or new Fiesta

* Colorful Cupboards, 5252 Hohman, Hammond, (219) 933-9900

* www.eBay.com

* Homer Laughlin Outlet Store, 672 Fiesta Drive, Newell, W.V., (800) 452-4462 or www.hlchina.com

* Major department stores and specialty china shops

* Mood Indigo, (212) 254-1176 or www.moodindigonewyork.com

Good resources

* "Fiesta: The Homer Laughlin China Company's Colorful Dinnerware" by Jeffery B. Snyder (Schiffer Publishing, 2000).

* "Fiesta, Harlequin, and Kitchen Kraft Tablewares: The Homer Laughlin China Collectors Association Guide" (Homer Laughlin China Collectors Association, 2000)

* "Post '86 Fiesta: Identification and Value Guide" by Richard G. Racheter (Collector Books, 2000)

* "The Collectors Encyclopedia of Fiesta," by Bob and Sharon Huxford (Collector Books, 1992)

Go to the source

Visit the Homer Laughlin China factory in Newell, W.V. (six hours from Hammond).

Take a tour, pick up some deals on new or irregular china at the outlet store and learn everything you wanted to know about Fiesta!

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