What's a million dollar teapot?
- One of the secrets to make a perfect cup of tea lies in choosing the right teapot
- Some teapots gather value as they age and can be auctioned for a million bucks
In early November, a man from Dorset, UK, invited Lee Young from Duke’s auction house to look at a few possessions of his, including a pale green glazed teapot—about 5 inches in height—with a peach and pip ornament on its lid. The owner expected a few thousand pounds, at the most 20, for it. Young took the pot and turned it over. Heart skipping a beat, he saw on the bottom the stamp he had hoped to see. It was a 17th century Qing dynasty pot belonging to the era of emperor Qianlong, which earned the owner a million dollars.
But to tea lovers, for whom their teapots are foremost a necessary everyday companion—influencing both flavour and experience—the quest is always on for the best. One such piece to aspire to would be a Chinese Yixing teapot.
The No.1 Yixing Factory was set up in 1958, and although Yixing pottery had been renowned even before it, the products of this factory are considered collectors’ items. Master potters worked specially sourced clay that offered black tea the porosity it needs. Attention to how the tea would unfurl influenced the shape of the pot. The clay also absorbed some tea, forming a patina said to enhance its flavour. The No.1 factory has closed but the manufacture of Yixing pots continues.
If your tastes are more lavish, the British produced some of the more elaborate and pretty tea sets and services. Early inspiration came from the Chinese teapots but eventually they assumed their own personality. In the 18th century, Josiah Wedgwood, an exceptionally skilled potter, began creating beautifully glazed creamware tea sets, his response to porcelain. The Wedgwood sets were sought by celebrities like Edith Roosevelt, wife of US president Theodore Roosevelt, who once commissioned an over 1,000-piece dinner service for the White House. Wedgwood still connotes old-world elegance.
The Japanese too celebrate their teaware as much as their tea. The kyusu, or teapot, comes in different materials and shapes. The most common is the rounded pot with a handle that sticks out straight, either on the side or the back (in relation to the spout). It’s quite convenient for one-hand pouring—hold by the handle, with the thumb keeping the lid in place. But perhaps the most iconic of Japanese teapots is what is commonly called tetsubin. The original tetsubin is a cast iron tea kettle, whose material allowed for quick heating and better temperature retention. The teapot itself is the tetsu kyusu, which looks like a tetsubin from the outside but comes with an enamel coating inside, making it a teapot, rather than a kettle. It’s unsuited for use on a stove top as the enamel will crack.
All these teapots need care and attention in the course of maintenance. For instance, it’s recommended that Yixing pots or tetsu kyusu be used for a single tea type to avoid tainting it.
If it’s too much effort, the glass teapot is a low-maintenance option. The only grouse is that it is too utilitarian, unlikely to carry the legacy of your love affair with tea or become an inheritance a descendant will be handed a million bucks for.
Yixing pots, Wedgwood sets and tetsu kyusu are available online but require authenticity checks. Your best bet is to pick them on travels. Glass pots from Borosil are an easy buy too.
Tea Nanny is a weekly series steeped in the world of tea. Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry.
FIRST PUBLISHED06.12.2019 | 03:39 PM IST
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