Fine China for All Americans—Presidents Included

Walter Scott Lenox didn’t plan to make plates for presidents. When Lenox began producing ceramics in Trenton, N.J., around 1889, he was mostly indulging his desire for artistry. Profit was always secondary for Lenox; the artisan was more concerned with making American china that rivaled Europe’s.

Then, in 1918, Edith Wilson noticed his work. The second wife of President Woodrow Wilson, Edith had an independent streak; she famously took over presidential duties following her husband’s debilitating stroke in 1919. But Edith wasn’t just interested in affairs of state; she also had an appetite for interior design. Tired of the White House’s stodgy old dishware, the first lady convinced her husband to buy Lenox’s china. Ever since Mary Todd Lincoln’s infamous shopping sprees, however, the state had been stingy with funds for administrations’ decorative passions. So Wilson laid down the cash himself, Lenox sent the goods, and a tradition was born.

A tradition—and a reputation. Future first ladies adored Lenox’s designs, and though the founder died in 1920, his china continued to decorate the White House throughout the 20th century. Presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush all purchased Lenox china, and the company made commemorative crystal vases for President Barack Obama’s inauguration. Although presidents technically purchase Lenox as private citizens, the brand has undoubtedly been bestowed with the glamour of the White House.

But it’s not just presidents who love Lenox. The brand has maintained customer loyalty not just through devotion to customers, but also through devotion to country: Lenox remains entirely based in the United States, with corporate headquarters in Pennsylvania and a manufacturing plant in Kinston, N.C., that employs 300 workers. They’re especially popular with brides-to-be, and Lenox china is ubiquitous among bridal registries throughout the country. (In any year, 60 percent of Lenox’s fine china is sold into the bridal market.) But keeping up that famed quality and competing with international brands isn’t always easy.

“There’s far more competition from global manufacturing than there used to be,” says Peter Cameron, the company’s CEO, “especially from Asia. And that’s pressured most U.S. ceramic manufacturers out of business.”

Keeping up with foreign manufacturers can be particularly challenging in America’s regulatory climate, which puts a high premium on workers’ health and safety. The Affordable Care Act, President Obama’s health care overhaul, will soon mandate that companies like Lenox provide top-notch health care to their employees, while environmental laws require the company to filter all toxins out of their products. Such requirements—which add unavoidable overhead costs to production—are absent in a country like China.

Lenox has thus far managed to prevent rising health care costs from adding to the price of its china, making up for the increase by improving productivity and competitiveness. And through a partnership with General Electric, the company has recently reduced its energy costs by increasing plant efficiency and upgrading safety precautions.

Keeping current with U.S. regulations might be a bit of a burden, but for Lenox, it’s a tradeoff worth making: sending manufacturing abroad would violate many of the company’s foundational principles.

“There’s nothing more important to us than our design aesthetic,” says Cameron. “We do very sophisticated design work, and to keep that quality consistent, it needs to be done internally. We don’t want to teach 50 other people how to make the exact same product we make. We’d rather make it ourselves.”

Although its devotion to homegrown American manufacturing led to a rise in production costs, Lenox’s decision also helped the company’s brand become more unique and respected.

“It’s how we separate ourselves from our sea of competitors,” says Steve O’Connell, the company’s CFO. “They might have lower prices, but we have better products.”

Those customers, moreover, are often fiercely loyal; a young bride who gets her first piece of Lenox china at her wedding may still be an enthusiast 50 years later.

“Some of our products are very young, very hip,” Cameron says, “and some are very traditional and very serious. Some are gift-oriented, some collectible-oriented, some celebrity-driven.”

By offering such a wide range of options, the company can ensure that its clientele will remain faithful to the brand—even if their individual tastes change over the course of their lives. Every piece of Lenox china may be distinct, but the brand’s overarching aesthetic is immutable. The company has come a long way since 1889, but it is still perfectly in line with Walter Scott Lenox’s vision of clean, beautiful design.

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