A shattered cup is really no reason for a broken heart


April 27, 1994|By ROB KASPER

I was mourning the loss of my favorite coffee cup when I called Irene Briant looking for sympathy. I got a lesson on ceramics, a tip on how to tell whether a cup was made by an Italian artisan -- mine wasn't -- and a little consolation.

I missed that cup. It was a gift for coaching a baseball team last summer. Now the season was long gone and, thanks to my carelessness, the cup was in pieces. Ms. Briant told me, in so many words, to snap out of it.

Ms. Briant mends china. She repairs cups, plates, dishes. But not just any old piece. It has to be a piece worth fixing. And my coffee cup, she told me, was not worth it.

Until our 30-minute telephone conversation, I had never spoken with Ms. Briant. I found her in the phone book as the only listing under "Chinaware and Glassware Repairing." Even though we had never met, Ms. Briant seemed to know the symptoms of a grieving coffee cup owner.

For 20 years, she said, people have come her to carrying broken cups, cracked plates, chipped glasses and teapots with troubled spouts. Right from the get-go she warns them, as she warned me, that repairing anything that holds hot liquids is a chancy proposition. Eventually the heat, or the stress of being washed in a dishwasher, or the tension of being dried by a dish towel, will mean that the glue used in the repair will give way.

If the wounded vessel is a wineglass broken at the stem, she often advises customers to cut their losses and "make it into a bud vase." But if the rim of the glass is chipped, she recommends it ground and polished at a glass company, Chaudron Glass & Mirror on Lovegrove street. "Usually," she said, "I am handing something back to customers telling them it is not worth it to have me fix it." Repairs cost from $10 to hundreds, she said, and customers are often better off buying a new replacement piece. She has a two-month backlog of work.

Beyond fiscal considerations, the only remaining reason to have a broken dish mended is sentiment. And despite her habit of beginning a transaction by telling you why it doesn't make sense to pay her to fix your broken dish, Ms. Briant is no stranger to the power of sentiment.

Often after hearing the recitation of reasons why the repair should not be made, "a customer will get what I call that dying bloodworm look," Ms. Briant said. "And then the customer will say, 'but it belonged to my grandmother.' More often than not, Ms. Briant ends up making the repair. "I have replaced spouts on many teapots, which lasted for decades . . . much to my surprise," Ms. Briant said.

Calling herself somewhat of an expert, Ms. Briant outlined the three divisions of the field of ceramics -- earthenware, stoneware and porcelain. Color matters, she said. Pieces made in Holland often have a grayish hue, Italian work is reddish, and French is yellowish, she said, adding, "I know that I am telling you more than you want to know."

My coffee cup was white porcelain made in a factory. When you reglue something white, the glue lines show, she said. The most successful repairs are made on dishes that have a pattern, she said, explaining that the repair work can then be painted and glazed.

Customers have given her all kinds of explanations of how their treasured dishes are broken. "It is always the wind or the dog who broke it," Ms. Briant said, her voice trailing off in a laugh.

She does not care how the dish was broken. She is not a detective looking for suspects. She is a surgeon, interested in patching things up. When a customer presents her with a piece, she holds it, examines it and guesses at its age. Then she turns the dish over, looking for marks on its underside that give her a clearer notion of how old the piece is. People sometimes lie about the age of their ceramics, she said. When she catches customers exaggerating the age of a dish, she tells them they are wrong.

The truth-telling may result in "a tiff" with a customer over the correct age of an item, she said. But she is undaunted. "If they are collectors, this is is something they ought to know."

After all her tough talk, Ms. Briant softened and offered to show me how to put my coffee cup back together, even though the repair might not hold. I told her that she had convinced me that it wasn't worth the effort. My cup might be broken, but somehow my life would go on.

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