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In lieu of the much-anticipated Royal Wedding of Prince Harry and her soon-to-be Royal Highness Meghan Markle, ordinary citizens of England are doing the only responsible thing to do in order to cash in on the bonanza event: rolling out the swag.
There is an enormous industry of royal wedding merchandise, as there always is with any royal family celebration. According to England’s business consultancy firm Brand Finance, the royal wedding is expected to bring 500 million pounds to the British economy (about $680 million), with its analysts counting on people spending £50 million on commemorative items.
The options of what you can buy to celebrate the marriage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle are seemingly endless. There are the tchotchkes (keychains, magnets, Christmas ornaments), the kitchen goodies (cookie tins, spoons, towels, aprons), the fun collectibles (coloring books, pill boxes, paper dolls, biscuits, teas), and even some risqué ones too (like condoms).
While the little trinkets are certainly of interest to royal family fans, the category of royal swag expected to gather the most hype is royal wedding china. Royal experts like Victoria Arbiter, a longtime royals reporter, says that above all else, the economy’s chinaware — its teacups, saucers, plates, and trays, all made of fine bone china, manufactured by heritage British tableware brands and sold at a steep price — is the most covetable class of item in this cottage industry.
To be clear, fine bone china is not quite the fundamental household purchase it once was. You can blame this on Seamless, which has all but conditioned people to be satisfied with cardboard containers and plastic wear. Or, like everything else, you can blame it on the shopping habits of millennials, who can’t afford to buy real estate and invest in plants for their rentals instead of fancy kitchenware. Even the once-requisite move to add a china set to an engaged couple’s registry is waning: A survey from the Knot found that only 26 percent of couples now register for china because most feel they’re “not really that fancy.”
Roll out a royal wedding, though, and suddenly it doesn’t seem all that unreasonable to shell out $200 for a plate, $49 for a coffee mug, or $67 for a teacup and saucer. Why would shoppers who don’t normally dine with such fancies buy a delicate teacup with Harry and Meghan’s faces on it? For one thing, it’s the one category of trinket that actually allows royal fans to feel like they’re getting in on the action — even if it’s just superficially. Can’t live like a royal? Well, at least you can drink tea like one.
“I think many people buy these things because they are fascinated by royalty and its lifestyle,” says royal expert Marlene Koenig.
Aspects of high-society British lifestyle, like high tea and its accompanying table accessories, have also been romanticized in shows like The Crown, Queen Victoria, and Downton Abbey — to the point that tea (both the product and the activity) has become trendy in countries as far-flung as Israel and China — and so it makes sense that china is favorite item of the royal memorabilia.
“It comes from Britain’s obsession with tea and a fine tea set, and so one with a royal slant is even better,” says Arbiter. “The British thinking is that a cup of tea will solve anything, and drinking one out of a nice set is the best way to spend an afternoon.”
The royal family has its own in-house store, the Royal Collection Trust, which sells, among other things, china. The tableware is sold inside the museums of spots like Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle, and its profits go to the upkeep of the collection’s grounds and art. The store often puts out china that has royal fans pining. In 2015, for example, the china commemorating the birth of Princess Charlotte sold out and helped sales of the Royal Collection jump 11 percent.
But even those who aren’t exactly die-hard royal fans are projected to spend money on memorabilia like china this year. Koenig believes Meghan’s distinctiveness as someone who is far beyond the traditional expectations of a royal bride makes this royal merch economy different.
“With Meghan, there’s a whole new group of fans because she’s American, biracial, well-educated, and was already a public figure,” Koenig says. “This couple is more appealing to the average person because of the rising number of mixed-race marriages.”
The country’s fine tableware sector has been hit hard during the country’s recent economic difficulties. Shopping has been slow in the wake of Brexit, and High Street is struggling with digital competition. With this in mind, English china houses are welcoming the royal wedding with open arms. Rushing to join in on the craze include companies like Dunoon, Emma Bridgewater, Elgate, Royal Crown Derby, Halcyon Days, William Edwards, Hudson & Middleton, Roy Kirkham, Blenheim Co, Milly Green, Herend, and Cath Kidston, just to name a few.
“I think there is enough interest in royal wedding China that there’s enough room for all of us, but you still want to be the first and work quickly to sell well,” says fine bone china designer Williams Edwards, whose namesake brand just debuted a special collection for the wedding.
Some British china brands set their collection apart by making it as extravagant as possible — think saucers and trays trimmed with 22-karat gold. Other companies, like Edwards’s, have their eye set on the lower-end customer perusing the internet and are targeting Amazon.
Pamela Harper, the CEO of Halcyon Days, a china brand that’s been around since 1950 and makes pieces for the British royal family, admits the company was hit with hard times a few years ago. Now, it’s anticipating its royal wedding collection will give the company a 10 percent boost in sales.
“It’s going to have a very important impact on our business,” she says.
Christopher Oakes is the managing director of Royal Crown Derby, one of the oldest china companies in the world (its tableware was used in one of the restaurants in the Titanic). It’s currently selling some of the most high-end royal wedding china; for instance, a teacup that costs £145. Regardless of the high price tag, Oakes is fully confident the collection will sell out and expects Royal Crown Derby to net “hundreds of thousands of pounds” in profit.
Oakes says his company generally serves older customers, and he’s been pleasantly surprised to find interest among younger shoppers.
“If I’m being honest, we used to associate this category with an older consumer,” he says. “It’s been interesting to see the age demographic come down, and I think it will continue to do so with wide appeal of the current couple.”
Oakes also says his company has seen a large uptick in customers from markets like Japan and South Korea. Royal Crown Derby’s fastest-growing market is China, which is a bit ironic given that there will no doubt be plenty of cheap, made-in-China china that will sell for a fraction of what Royal Crown Derby tableware costs. Over at Zazzle, sellers have even knocked off the official Royal Collection china for paper products (they’re pretty good too!).
Arbiter, the royals reporter, says part of the kitsch behind this particular industry is that most shoppers will want products made in England and china from notable brands, even if they have to pay a premium.
“Aside from wanting good quality, the English heritage comes with a certain cachet,” she says. “I don’t think it would come with the same connection if it wasn’t made in the UK. That’s definitely something royal family fans care about.”
This isn’t to say the craze is only coming from far, far away. Edwards says he’s gotten orders from several five-star hotels in London, like the Café Royal, which anticipate tourists will want to buy the china but also believe locals will spill into its hotel bars, cafes, and restaurants on the day of the royal wedding and will want a piece of the celebration too. These days, even British grocery stores like Sainsbury’s and Fortnum & Mason stock high-end china.
The most outsize success Edwards says he’s seen thus far, though, is his Amazon store, which isn’t too surprising. He launched it a few weeks ago and has already gotten nearly 1,000 orders. He says 80 percent of his sales are coming from the US, and he anticipates he will sell all 20,000 pieces of his royal collection. Edwards admits he’s banking on royal wedding fever but also maintains the event is a gateway drug to compel shoppers to buy other sorts of china: “It’s a very good marketing tool. The royal family is a very good news story for us.”
Of course, among the die-hard royal fans and British lifestyle aspirationalists, there are those splurging on expensive royal wedding china in the hopes they can make money off it in a few years’ time.
Koenig, the royal wedding expert, has successfully flipped rare memorabilia; today, though, she says, that ship has sailed. The market is far too saturated, with numerous companies trying to cash in on the craze of royal wedding china. Even companies with limited distribution, like Royal Crown Derby, won’t likely render its owners any capital in the future.
“They aren’t really holding their value anymore because there’s just too many of them,” says Koenig. “It’s valueless, really, unless it’s about making the buyer really, really happy.”
There is rare royal family memorabilia that collectors fight over and auction at Sotheby’s and Christie’s. But much of the merchandise floating around is not rare, Koenig says. The royal family began producing merchandise en masse during the Victorian era (1837-1901), when the country developed a healthy middle class. As the Daily Mail notes, there’s a sharp distinction for royal family china that’s made before versus during and after Queen Victoria’s rule. Cups made for King George IV in 1820 are rare and valuable, as are those made for Queen Victoria’s 1838 coronation. The ones made for her Diamond Jubilee from 1897, on the other hand, aren’t. Old they may be, but rare they are not.
There are exceptions, Koenig notes. There’s the rare royal item, like the stamps issued in 1937 for the Diamond Jubilee of George V that were printed in the wrong color. Signed stuff holds its value as well: A Christmas card from Princess Diana and Prince Charles is selling on an online auction site for nearly £2,000. One-offs hold their value too. The bike Princess Diana had to stop riding when she got engaged to Prince Charles in 1981, for example, recently sold for about $12,000. A piece of cake from William and Kate’s wedding in 2011 sold for $7,500 in 2014.
Anyone buying china for Meghan and Harry’s wedding will certainly not hit it big if they throw it into the resale market. The good news is that unlike most valueless tchotchkes, royal wedding china will at least live on, whether on a dusty shelf or in a kitchen cabinet, with a love story about a prince and princess who live happily ever after.