The definition of a backstamp on china is simple: The markings on the back or underneath a piece of china which contain information about that particular piece. For example, if you have a Wedgwood Cavendish dinner plate, it is most likely to say the brand aka manufacturer (Wedgwood), the pattern aka design (Cavendish), the pattern number (R4680) along with other pieces of information such as material (bone china) where it was made and internal codes and names.
The definition may be simple but reading china backstamps can be quite complicated. There is no uniform standard between brands as to what information is included and in what order. Also, the older the pattern the more likely it is to have less information and in a more confusing layout.
The earliest pieces of western china were mostly unmarked or marked with the brand name only. We recently sold a piece of Wedgwood with just the name “Wedgwood” stamped into it. Collectors use these backstamp variations as a tool to help identify the time periods of different pieces. The truth is that it is quite puzzling why china makers such as Wedgwood and Spode chose not to mark their wares considering that other industries and artists such as painters had done so centuries before them.
Even later on, when the proliferation of brands and patterns forced makers to mark their china with their brand and the pattern name, it was often done unclearly, with little numbers in corners as well as lots of internal information that meant nothing to the end user. There was also constant change that made it hard to follow. The use of logos only remains a headache for collectors until this day.
In more modern times, from the 1970’s forward it has gotten much easier to read china backstamps. The brand and pattern names tend to be printed clearly and stick out above the rest of the information. Pattern numbers are also there when the pattern has one.
It is therefore most often easy to identify any recent china pattern without great difficulty. Manufacturers have also taken to marking second quality pieces with a scratch through the backstamp or a special letter or character. But this applies only to china, crystal patterns, such as Waterford Powerscourt or Waterford Kildare, are still pretty difficult to figure out. Many brands to etch their brand name under the base of the glass but few put the pattern name there as well. Considering that most crystal is colorless, it has remained exceedingly difficult to properly identify crystal patterns based on their cut and design. To the inexperienced eye many patterns can look the same, unless they are compared side-by-side. When in doubt contact a crystal expert or consult a research book online.