Replacing The Irreplaceable.

(ARA) - "They were the only ones that offered any encouragement," says Margaret Winters. The Northridge, Calif. resident is talking about Replacements Ltd., a company that tracks down discontinued china, silver, glassware and collectibles. Winters lost the teapot from the tea set her husband bought her before they were married, as well as several pieces of her Noritake wedding china, in the 1994 Northridge earthquake, which registered 6.8 on the Richter scale. She had lost other pieces of wedding china in a 1971 earthquake as well, and had decided it was time to make her collection complete again.

Unfortunately, Noritake no longer manufactured Winters' pattern. A friend suggested she contact Replacements Ltd. "They found cups, saucers and a cake plate right away," she says, adding she was very impressed by the way the china was packed and shipped, as well as the quality of the pieces she received. However, the company advised her that she might be in for a wait on the teapot. "Every so often, I would call them and check to see if I was still on the list," laughs Winters. "They always told me they were still looking for me."

"These are more than dishes", says Replacements Ltd. spokesman Liam Sullivan. "They're part of people's lives, part of their family history. We're really replacing memories," he notes.

Should they discover a missing or broken piece, chances are that the Greensboro, N.C.-based business will have what customers are looking for. Replacements Ltd. has an inventory of more than 9 million pieces in stock, representing 175,000 different patterns, and the list is constantly growing. "We discover a new pattern just about every day," says Sullivan.

Thanks to this large inventory, most customers will have their pieces delivered within a week to 10 days. The company prides itself on customer service and lives by the motto "it abolutely has to get there in one piece." "Some of these pieces are 100 years old and may be one-of-a-kind," says Sullivan. "These are people's memories. It's more than a dish to them -- it's part of their family."

"If we don't have it, we will do everything that we can to try to find it," says Sullivan. Indeed, Replacements has about 1,000 "dish detectives" who are constantly scouring flea markets, garage sales and estate auctions for items requested by customers.

As pieces come in, employees inspect each one and give it a grade, then assign it to a spot on one of the 50,000 shelves in the warehouse, which is the size of more than four football fields. In the showroom, the Great Wall of China spans 40 feet and displays hundreds of china patterns. The display area is open to the public, and hosts thousands of visitors every year.

Those looking to complete their set of china or silver simply call the company or visit its Web site armed with the name of the pattern they're looking for and the pieces they need. If you don't know the name of the pattern, you can compare it to pictures on the Web site, or call and describe it to a customer service representative who will help identify it.

Bob Page, founder of Replacements, started the company in 1981 as a logical extension of his weekend hobby of scouring flea markets and estate sales looking for tableware. He started getting requests from people asking him to look for pieces they wanted, and from there a business was born.

Replacements has tracked down china for the rich and famous, including Sen. Ted Kennedy, Barbara Walters, Charlton Heston, Betty Ford and author Anne Rice. Television shows such as "All My Children" and "Everybody Loves Raymond" also come to the company looking for dishes. However, it's stories like Winters' that make the business so fulfilling, says Sullivan.

Winters would agree. Although it took some time, Replacements found her a new teapot just in time for the holidays. "I kept longing for that teapot," she says. "Now I can fully enjoy my china."

Here are the top 10 most popular discontinued patterns based on requests to Replacements Ltd.:

Weatherly by Lenox
Desert Rose by Franciscan
Ivy by Franciscan
Azalea by Noritake
Brookdale by Lenox
Rosilande by Haviland
Runnymede-Blue by Wedgwood
Moonspun by Lenox
Sunnyvale by Castleton
Kingsley by Lenox

Liam Sullivan of Replacements Ltd. offers the following tips for caring for fine china, crystal and silver:

* Fine crystal and china should always be washed by hand in warm water with mild detergent. When preparing to wash by hand, use a rubber mat or towel to cushion the bottom of the sink.

* Modern china can sometimes be put in the dishwasher, but make sure the words "dishwasher safe" appear on the back of the china.

* Always store sterling in a case lined with soft cloth. Do not use a drawer in the kitchen that is opened frequently, as exposure to air promotes tarnishing.

* Store crystal right side up to protect delicate rims.

* Never stack china cups more than two high to prevent chipping and breakage.

For more information, or to register your pattern with Replacements Ltd., visit the company's Web site, www.replacements.com, or call (800) 737-5223.

Courtesy of ARA