Imperial China

Founded in 1744 on orders from Empress Elizabeth, the Imperial Porcelain Factory supplied, on an exclusive basis, Russia's czarist elite with exquisite craftsmanship. Today those same de­­signs are available to ordinary com­rades like you and me. The factory—a 20-minute drive from the center of St. Petersburg—still makes high-quality, customized pieces in the tradition of the great Chinese masters who provided, at least initially, the model upon which the company was founded. By the end of the century, however, the style was decidedly its own and an imperial commission had become a requisite for any royal affair or new palace.

The most popular pattern, Cobalt Net, comes in several var­ia­­tions and features intersecting lines of blue and 22-karat gold. Stalin chose it for his own table in 1949, apparently unconcerned with the irony that the design was originally selected by Empress Elizabeth for a dinner she held at Pavlosk Palace.

The factory itself provides a fascinating one-stop education in Russian porcelain making. But the primary appeal is its shop: a riot of dishes, coffee sets, ceremonial vases, and its collec­tion of teacups, centerpieces, and figurines—depicting everything from country maidens to Kremlin reproductions.

To be sure, most of the pieces are grandly imperialist, and should your taste veer toward the ornate and wildly expensive, nobody does that better. But our favorite finds are the wonderfully minimal de-signs, such as a simple set of paper-thin white porcelain demitasse cups trimmed in gold ($8 per cup and saucer) and a tea service dec­orated with geo­metric patterns in white and Soviet red that pays hom­age to the Constructivist artist Kazimir Malevich ($75).

The factory will also create a custom service with your monogram, family crest, or any other image you desire. Orders take six months to a year to complete and prices start at around $250 for a modest tea set. At 151 Prospekt Obukhovskoy Oborony; 7-812/326-1744;