It all started innocently enough. We needed some props, so I popped into a vintage shop downtown to see if I could pick up a few cute teacups. The prices surprised me – $25, $30, even $50 or more for a single cup and saucer? I could buy a whole tea service at Home Goods for that much. My only purchase that day was a $12 tea cup with a saucer that had been repaired – good enough for a prop, I figured.

Flea market visits resulted in a few more select purchases, but they were obligatory – pretty enough to use for work, but nothing that got me excited about collecting. That changed when I found treasure at Goodwill. I almost overlooked the pretty cup and saucer, hand painted with violets.  I flipped it over to check the price and saw, to my surprise, the magic words “Haviland Limoges” and a price of just $4.99. Something inside me stirred.

Mikasa Antique Garden Teacup

I checked all the shelves again and found nearby another cup and saucer, this one with a familiar pink and red rose pattern, similar to one I’d bought at a flea market recently. But whereas that one had been produced in China, this one said “bone china” and “Made in England.” The price on this one was just $3.99. I was hooked! For me, it’s not about the cups themselves – I could easily find dozens of beautiful tea cups at my local vintage shops, if I was willing to pay their prices. But I love the thrill of finding the unexpected treasure for a bargain price. Bit by bit, my collection of tea cups and saucers is beginning to grow, and I love the feeling I get when I find something new.

Tips for Tea Cup Collecting

I can’t in any way proclaim to be an expert on tea cups or china, but here are some of the basics I’ve picked up so far. Above all, buy what you love. Tea cup collecting isn’t something to go into as a money making scheme. Choose cups with shapes, patterns and colors that delight your eye and thrill your soul when you see them displayed in your home.

Porcelain versus Bone China

Porcelain is a technical term that refers specifically to a type of hard clay (kaolin clay) only found in China. When fired at intense heat, it has a glassy or translucent surface and is very delicate. Various European craftsmen tried to replicate this product with different kinds of clay to various success,  including those from Limoges, France. Bone china is made by mixing bone ash in with the clay, a process that was invented by Josiah Spode in England in the 1790s. It is stronger and whiter than porcelain, and therefore became very popular throughout Europe.

Vintage teacups and teapot on display.
Photo by Bret Gum.

Tea cups versus Coffee Cups

While it may seem of little practical difference, there are technical differences between coffee cups and tea cups. Tea cups tend to be smaller, more delicate, more ornate and their handles are higher on the side than coffee cups. You can also find demitasse cups in many patterns and styles.

Country of Origin

Most tea cups will have a mark on the bottom that indicates their country of origin and the company that produced it. It might even include the name of the pattern and the date it was produced. You can use online resources to help you track down  information about these marks if you’re interested in knowing more.

There are pretty tea cups available from all over the world, including England, France, China and Japan. Always collect what you like, of course, but one approach to building a collection is to focus on one country or period. Tea cups marked “Occupied Japan,” from the period following World War 2, are considered particularly collectible. But watch out for cheap modern replicas that are tagged “Made in China.”

Tea Cup Manufacturers of Note

As you start to engage in tea cup collecting more and more, you’ll begin to recognize certain manufacturers and patterns that appeal to you. You can research specific details online and in reference guides for collectors. Some of the more notable ones include:

Mixing and Matching Teacups and Saucers

When buying a teacup and saucer set, check carefully to make sure they are an actual match – don’t just compare the pattern, but look at the mark on the bottom to ensure they were produced together. A mismatched set should have a reduced price.

On the other hand, many people enjoy the charming novelty of mismatched cups and saucers. If monetary value isn’t an issue for you, then feel free to mix them us as desired!

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