KINSTON, N.C. -- 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.
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 has been adding those enamel fruits and flowers here in Kinston since 1989. She is one of 285 workers now at the only bone-china factory in the United States.
"I get a joy seeing the products we make at the Kinston plant," said Bizzelle, 48. "To see the quality of it just blesses my heart, knowing I had a part in that. Lenox is such a prestige company, and people love our products. I'm happy about that."
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, N.C. -- 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.
Agribusiness is still big, with 600 workers processing ham for Smithfield Foods and more than 1,600 working for Sanderson Farms, the nation's fourth-largest poultry producer. The ups and downs of the housing industry -- lately on the upswing -- are reflected in the fortunes of more than 1,000 workers who make dishwashers for Electrolux or cabinets for Master Brand.
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, N.C., before closing it in 2003, after 20 years.
Lenox built the Kinston dinnerware plant to respond to the growing popularity of fine imported bone china -- the white-bone ash adds strength and translucence -- and to make it at lower prices for the bridal market. In fact, it was Lenox that originated the bridal-gift registry.
Many of the plant's first employees are still on the job, and the average employee tenure is 14 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.
Whoosh. Clink. Whir. One dish might be handled by 50 people or more, passing through firings in five different kilns at up to 2,285 degrees Fahrenheit and 12 hours at a time.
The jigger machine presses fat discs onto spinning molds as a knife trims the edges of excess clay to be reclaimed. A dish that first takes shape as a flabby 12-inch pancake will shrink eventually to a hard, thin, 10.5-inch dinner plate.
The plaster molds absorb moisture from the clay. Each one is replaced after 100 uses.
Cup handles, gravy boats and other intricate items are made from liquid clay injected into molds. At different stages on the production lines, workers smooth away seams and rough spots with sponges, blades, cork pads and diamond grinders.
The glaze is a mist of liquid glass sprayed from all sides as each dish parades past the nozzles, pirouetting on its pedestal. A gushing waterfall wall captures the mist for recycling and keeps it from drifting into the room.
Hiss. Clack. Hum. Machines do jobs once handled here by men and women. Those logs of green and gray clay weren't always sliced and stacked by robots.
And in parts of the 240,000-square-foot factory, skilled workers and programmed devices work side by side.
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.
The women do the dotting by hand for cups and teapots, but a robot has taken over this chore for flat plates.
A computer rotates the plate, scanning its decaled floral pattern to note where each blob of color belongs. On a second rotation, it extends a tiny depth gauge from the rim toward the center of the plate, to measure the downhill tilt -- because each dot has its own altitude.
Now the plate turns a third time, and the computer applies the enamel jeweling with precision: Dot. Dot. Dot. Dot. Dot.
Scripps Howard News Service, shns.com