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A tea museum as a tribute to love

Chitra Collection in London is one the most important tea collections in the world

Eighteenth century teapots made in Germany on display at the museum.
Eighteenth century teapots made in Germany on display at the museum. (Chitra Collection)

This week, I got to hear a remarkable love story, one that somewhat reminds me of another famous one from history that also features tea, that of Napoleon and Josephine. Napoleon it is said, was a great tea lover and a collector of tea sets. His love for Josephine was no less but their marriage ended in a divorce tragically, and even in parting, his gift to her was a tea set.

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Over an hour-long conversation with Nirmal Sethia, 82, who runs the London-based Newby Teas, I listen to a love story unfold. He talked about growing up as an heir to a successful jute business enterprise. At 16, he decided to leave home in London and arrived in India, where he became a buyer of tea for Irish companies. Over the next four years, he became a tea guy, tasting tea, and even acquiring a tea garden in Assam. In his 20s, Sethia returned to the family fold, got married, and got busy. Decades went by, the Sethia family’s footprint in the jute trade increased vastly, dominating over half the global supply.

In 2000, Sethia’s wife, Chitra, urged him to return to his “first love”—tea. He says, “I said to her, you are crazy. I am doing work in billions, but you want me to go back to selling tea?” At her insistence, he started Newby Teas in 2001, selling top-quality teas.

In 2010, Chitra died. Two months after her passing, Sethia set out to create a tea museum in her memory. Today, the Chitra Collection is one the most important tea collections in the world, certainly the most valuable. In 14 years, Sethia has acquired around 3,000 objects, every one of them tea related.

The collection remains private but about 1,000 are available for viewing online (chitracollection.com). Each piece comes with a story of its own. The silver teapot, engraved with the letter N, belonged to Admiral Nelson who led Britain to victory in the Battle of Trafalgar. It was made in the late 18th century, as a bachelor teapot that held enough tea for one. It’s worth a million pounds today, adds Sethia. The collection that begins from 10th century BC from all over the world tells tea’s long, turbulent, poetic, discordant, economic and artistic history.

“Did you know,” he says, “that there was no porcelain until the 17th century?” Sethia has acquired several porcelain tea sets from Meissen, the world’s first porcelain factory, that was started in 1710 after Johann Friedrich Böttger was able to crack the recipe, financed by Augustus the Strong, the king of Poland. And so it goes, these tales of tea sets belonging to presidents, emperors, queens, heroes, villains… it’s easy to get lost in them if you enjoy this sort of history.

And then you see a more modern teapot, from 2016, designed by Sethia himself. Studded with diamonds and rubies, it’s the “Egoist”, a token of love in memory of his wife. Valued at up to $3 million (around 25 crore), it holds a Guinness record for the most expensive teapot in the world. It is a precious object, one that tells a rather special love story.

Tea Nanny is a fortnightly series on the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry. She posts @AravindaAnanth1 on Twitter.

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