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An Interest in a Teapot : Collectors Are Warming Up to the Delicate Carafes Steeped in History and Whimsy

February 08, 1992|VALERIE ORLEANS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The British are coming! The British are coming! Or at least their habit of indulging in a cup of tea in the afternoon is establishing a secure niche in America. Along with this habit comes a fondness for collecting the variety of colorful, elegant or practical teapots in which to brew this fragrant beverage.

Although people have always liked the look of teapots, their popularity is growing, according to Audrey and Vivian Heredia, co-owners of McCharles House, a Victorian-styled restaurant in Tustin that caters to tea-loving individuals by offering a range of afternoon affairs, such as "Gentlemen's teas" and candlelight teas.

"We have about 60 different teapots we use to serve our guests," said Audrey Heredia. "Most of them are the more formal, china pots. The styles are all different.

"We choose the teapots that appeal to us. When people visit the restaurant, they often comment on the pots so we opened a small shop in one of the rooms to sell teapots and tea accessories, such as cups and saucers, infusers (small mesh, metal or china balls that hold the loose tea leaves) and strainers."

Sally Jepsen, co-owner of Gloria Jean's Coffee Bean stores in Brea, Santa Ana, Westminster and Montclair, said: "Actually, teapots have always been popular. Even if you're not a tea drinker, you can still appreciate them. I think most of the pots we sell aren't necessarily designed to be used, but to be displayed in someone's home."

Gloria Jean's currently has about 75 different teapots, from the more whimsical designs that feature wizards riding atop dragons, a panda-shaped pot and dancing turtles, to elegant china sets with flowers and flourishes hand-painted along the sides.

Customers snatch up teapots with fairy-tale themes (Cinderella's coach, a Mad Hatter's tea party set, or the Three Bears), as well as the elaborate Fitz and Floyd sets that feature images of orchids, designs of rabbits (complete with heads of lettuce) and birds and bouquets.

Each season also inspires a line of teapots. The Spode teapots are popular during Christmas, while bunny motifs take over in the spring. There are even lines of teapots with Valentine's Day designs.

Another set available at Gloria Jean's in limited quantities is a cobalt blue and gold, 22-piece tea set manufactured in Russia. The pattern hand-painted on the set was one originally commissioned by Catherine the Great. According to legend, the monarch so liked the design and style of the tea set that commoners were not allowed to copy it.

Another popular seller is a silver-plated teapot that sits suspended over a warmer so that the tea is kept hot during the course of an evening.

According to Jepsen, the popular T-4-1 teapot consists of a miniature teapot, combined with a cup that usually rests on top of the pot itself. These teapots generally hold only one or two cups of tea.

"We find many people use these types of teapots frequently," said Jepsen. "It's not practical to brew an entire pot of tea if you just want a cup or two, so the T-4-1 teapot allows the tea drinker to make enough for just one."

Oriental-styled teapots are also popular in Gloria Jean's stores. In fact, it's believed that the first teapots created were the red, earthenware styles made during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). The artists creating these teapots then made their own personal "chop" on each one to identify themselves. A favorite teapot of Jepsen's is the "dragon" teapot. When you tip it to the side, a small ceramic dragon pops out of the teapot's lid.

A practical teapot is the "Brown Betty," a common fixture in most British homes. Made from the red clay near Staffordshire, the rounded design of this pot is over 300 years old.

"These are the teapots that are used for everyday use while the more elegant china pots are for entertaining guests," Jepsen said. "Supposedly, the Brown Betty's round shape was designed so that tea leaves gently swirl about as the water is being poured into the pot. This creates an exquisite infusion. This is the teapot that most English people use for their first cup of tea in the morning."

The cost of teapots range from as little as $15 to several hundred dollars.

Most teapots come in standard sizes of two, four, six and eight cups. However, as Jepsen points out, the English (from whom we get many of our tea drinking customs) usually mix healthy doses of cream with their tea, so if you're inclined to go light on the cream, you may get fewer cups per pot.

It's not necessary to have teapots that match the cups and saucers. In fact, it's even acceptable to use teapots with different lids if one should become lost or broken.

"Collectors frequently mix modern-looking teapots with very ornate, old-fashioned teapots," Jepsen said. "We sell a lot of teapots to people who use them as gifts. Including tea accessories with the teapots is popular as well."

Among the accessories that are commonly chosen include sugar and creamer sets, porcelain hand-painted teaspoons, infusers and strainers, tea cozies (padded or quilted coverings that are placed around teapots to help them retain their heat) and decorative cups and saucers.

"I think people like teapots because they're nostalgic about times when the pace of life seemed a little slower," Audrey Heredia said. "We often have people buying teapots because they remind them of a pot that their grandmother or a favorite aunt used to use."

The McCharles House staff will explain how to set a proper tea table from noon to 4 p.m., Sunday at the Crabtree & Evelyn Shop in MainPlace/Santa Ana. The free "Valentine Tea" will also include servings of iced raspberry tea and heart-shaped scones topped with the store's preserves. For more information, call the shop at (714) 973-8910.

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