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Kinston workers make china for White House

Brenda Bizzelle likes to check out the dinnerware counters at nice stores when she goes out of town, just to admire the fruits of her labor.

At Macy’s or Belk’s in Raleigh, at department stores and outlets in Myrtle Beach and Florida, she can run her fingers over the bumps of bright enamel that form 421 grapes, oranges, pineapples and flower petals on every gold-rimmed dinner plate of a fine old Lenox china pattern called Autumn.

Lenox Corp. began producing Autumn dinnerware in 1918, originally in New Jersey. Bizzelle, the daughter of Lenoir County sharecroppers, has been adding those enamel fruits and flowers in Kinston since 1989. She is one of 285 workers now at the only bone china factory in the United States.

“To see the quality of it just blesses my heart, knowing I had a part in that,” said Bizzelle, 48.

The Lenox factory is a start-to-finish operation. Raw ingredients are combined – including china clay and cattle bone ash from England and feldspar from Spruce Pine – and extruded in two colors of 5-inch-diameter logs. The pale gray clay will become white china; the pale green will leave the kilns with an ivory tint.

The finished goods are loaded into trucks that haul 60,000 pieces of china each week to a distribution center in Maryland. Platters, pitchers and other large items leave Kinston in their individual retail gift boxes, in different colors with the designer brands made here: ivory boxes for the Lenox label, pink for Kate Spade, black for Donna Karan.

Lenox, founded in 1889, has been a prestige brand since President Woodrow Wilson commissioned a 1,700-piece collection in 1918. It was the first White House china that was not Wedgwood or some other venerable import. The Wilson china featured a wide band of cobalt blue and, like the four Lenox White House collections that followed, a gold American eagle.

The George W. Bush collection consisted of 14-piece settings, in green and gold, for 320 diners. Like the pale yellow Clinton china, it was made in Kinston.

“Sometimes they put the presidential china on display at our visitor center,” said Mark Pope, Lenoir County economic development director. “It’s pretty awesome to see it.”

Lenoir is still recovering from the loss of 8,000 tobacco and textile manufacturing jobs in the late 1980s and 1990s. Lenox and a few larger employers form the core of a more diversified economy that now accounts for 5,000 manufacturing jobs.

Lenox is recovering, too, from the recession and from historic shifts in consumer tastes. The company employed as many as 700 workers at a giftware plant in Oxford before closing it in 2003, after 20 years.

Paul Leichtnam has managed the Kinston plant since it opened in 1989 and through three changes in corporate ownership. Lenox emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2009 under its current owner, Clarion Capital Partners LLC, a New York equity firm.

“We had almost 500 people working here and then things went bad in 2008, the whole economy, and that’s when our volume started going down,” said Leichtnam, 62. The plant’s output fell from 5 million to 3 million pieces per year.

“Of course, consumer trends have changed. Younger people are a little more casual. We try to follow those trends in our designs,” Leichtnam said. “It’s not like your grandmother’s china anymore.”

Actually, along with less expensive modern designs, you can still buy traditional Lenox patterns that are four generations old. Even at marked-down prices, a five-piece setting of gold-banded Lowell china retails for $400. An Autumn setting, colorful but with less gold, is $200.

This is a one-of-a-kind factory. Skilled workers, computer-guided robots, carts and conveyor belts move each plate and teacup through molding, drying, smoothing, decaling, decorating, glazing, firing and inspection processes that take several days.

Bizzelle and Gail Cohen apply dots of enamel with pneumatic pens – one for each of the six colors used in the Autumn pattern’s fruit-basket floral design. In the old days, they applied enamel with sharpened wood dowels.

“It takes a while to do it,” said Cohen, 65.

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