When a soup spoon slid into my churning garbage disposal, the disposal won, leaving a mangled heap of stainless steel roadkill. Accidents happen, and as a result, chipped glasses, cracked china and, yes, gnarled spoons get stashed in the back of kitchen cabinets and drawers, until we finally realize that action is required. My problem: I had no clue how to replace a piece of my 1970s-era flatware.
Maybe you’re in the same gravy boat. Fortunately, using the Internet, social media and old-fashioned detective work, you can track down almost anything, be it a cherished saucer from Grandma’s century-old collection or a single glass tumbler out of 12 that you received when you got married. Here are some tips:
Identification is the first step
Without some basic information, such as the manufacturer, pattern and materials, you can’t start shopping, says Julie Robbins, product specialist at Replacements, Ltd., one of the largest suppliers of vintage and current dinnerware, crystal, silver and collectibles.
China, porcelain and flatware will often have a stamp on their backs or bottoms. It may include the manufacturer’s name, pattern or where the piece was made. Some contemporary glassware may have letters and/or numbers.
If you know the original retailer — say a department store or specialty shop — make note of that, too. At minimum, you may be able to search for “vintage Crate & Barrel tumbler.” Dig out your bridal registry or the receipt, if you kept it. Hadley Keller, digital director of House Beautiful, says that if you can recall where your pieces came from, you can contact customer service and ask if someone can pull up your records. Every bit of information will help in your search.
Make your smartphone work for you
Rachel Timmerman, a blogger in Fairfax, Virginia, touts Google Lens for finding just about anything. The simple-to-use app uses artificial intelligence to scour the internet for matching items. When Timmerman wanted to restock a set of teaspoons, she hadn’t a clue as to manufacturer or pattern name, and the spoons had no discernible markings.
Using Google Lens, she scanned one of the spoons, and within seconds, she received dozens of results from places such as eBay, big-box stores and independent resellers. After determining the spoon’s maker and pattern, she typed that information into the Google “shopping” tab for a second search. That allowed her to compare sellers and prices. “I did have to look at almost every result, but I found the exact same spoon for a reasonable price and bought four,” she says.
Finally, keep an image of what you’re seeking on your phone. You never know when you’ll need it for reference or to show to someone.
Use descriptive language
No manufacturer? No pattern? That’s OK. Imagine yourself describing the object to a friend over the phone. “Think of it this way: You need to find a person who has what you have, so if you were the seller, what would you put in the posting?” says Katie R.T. Giaimo, founder of Heikkinen Rose, a website that resells high-quality vintage and antique pieces.
Closely examine what you have. Use objective and subjective terms. What are the dimensions and colors? Does it have a rim or border? Are there curlicues or scallops? Any weird markings or distinguishing features? This might result in “tall pitcher, light green curved handle, squiggly rim,” or in my case, “seven-inch stainless steel soup spoon, made in Japan, black inlay.”
Don’t be afraid to tweak terms such as “green” to “light green” or “bronze” to “gold.” Keller suggests searching the brand or manufacturer name, as well as misspellings of that name. “Sometimes folks looking to sell put items on the Internet and haven’t spelled certain key words correctly. As a result, they don’t appear in a search.” This is about casting as wide a net as possible.
Tap into social media
Keller, a frequent buyer of vintage china and flatware, suggests posting what you’re looking for on your social media accounts and saying that you welcome any insight. Consider exploring Facebook Marketplace. If you see sellers with similar content, reach out. “Maybe they can point you in the right direction or have something in inventory they haven’t posted online,” she says.
According to Giaimo, the most successful sellers these days are found on Instagram. So you may want to follow Instagram accounts with items similar to yours and message the account holder.
Get free help
With more than 11 million pieces, Replacements, Ltd. is a go-to resource for many people. (That’s where I found my replacement spoon.) The company offers several free services like pattern identification. Take a picture of your piece or another in the same set, upload it to the website, answer a few questions, and a curator will not only send you information on the manufacturer and pattern, but also on what the company has in stock, along with prices. You can also mail in the information.
Replacements’ visual search tool (click on the camera by the search bar on its website, replacements.com) can also help identify your pattern. Upload a photo. The website immediately shows you what the system can find. And, if you prefer a human, associates are available by phone.
Another option: Search eBay. Even if you come up empty-handed, the system will essentially “stalk” you and continue to send emails containing what it considers to be similar items until you ask it to stop. Similarly, if you know specifics, you can set up a Google alert for any new listings that match your description.
Make a personal appeal
If the retailer of your pieces is still in business, contact its customer service department. “Maybe they have a warehouse with out-of-stock items or know of someone who sells their discontinued product,” Robbins says.
Or take a sample piece to local antique or collectibles shops. “The reality is people at these stores are passionate, so [they] may be able to not only help you with identification, but point you to a seller,” Keller says. Also be sure to let friends who haunt garage and estate sales know that you’re on the lookout.
As with any online purchase, buy from reputable sources and widely known sites. Vet smaller or unfamiliar dealers and vendors. Read reviews and the fine print of any item description. Giaimo suggests asking the seller to send you extra pictures. “If there’s no response, that could be a red flag,” she says. So, too, are vague or convoluted emails.
Ask questions, Robbins says. What is the condition of the item? Are there any flaws? Is it chipped, cracked or stained? How do they ship? Can you pay for extra insurance? What’s the return policy? If the seller isn’t open and honest, walk away.
Decide what’s worth it
Just because something is hard to find doesn’t mean it’s valuable, Keller says. It’s possible you have a pattern made for a few years, then discontinued. Consider how much that china or silverware means to you, and be honest about what you are willing to pay for a replacement. That fork may not be worth $100 unless you have an emotional connection to it. If you don’t love it, weigh the cost of replacing it against starting over.
Hunting for replacements should be fun, not a slog. The more contemporary the piece, the harder it may be to find. As with others I spoke to, Keller is a proponent of mixing dishware and flatware. Take a second look at all those “near” matches, and augment your place settings with complementary pieces.
“If you don’t find what you want, put your search on the back burner. It may turn up in five years,” she says. Keep looking, and mix it up in the meantime. There are probably other cups or plates you will grow to love as much.
Laura Daily specializes in consumer advocacy and travel strategies.