When the precursor to Noritake Co., Limited was founded in 1904 in the village of Noritake outside Nagoya, Japan, the choice was not accidental. The land around Nagoya was rich with kaolin, the type of clay most favored by manufacturers of fine porcelain. Since one of the company’s goals was to produce Japan’s finest china, Noritake needed to be close to the best source materials available.
It didn't take long for the company to achieve its initial goal—by 1910 it could claim Emperor Taisho among its customers. Noritake made dinnerware for the Japanese Navy, and by 1911 its cups, saucers, plates, and bowls were sold in department stores throughout Japan.
This early success was obviously welcome, but Noritake had a second, loftier goal—to supply Western-style china and dinnerware to the West. The first breakthrough on that front was a pattern called Sedan, which was exported to the U.S. in 1914. The ware was simple, predominantly white, with a cream-colored, hand-painted, flower-dotted border.
Other lines of dinnerware were characterized by their liberal use of gold glaze. By the early 1920s, Noritake had introduced assembly-line techniques, which allowed the company to more widely distribute its dinnerware around the world.
Around the same time, Noritake produced a "fancy line," which borrowed from Art Nouveau and Belle Epoque styles. After the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris, Noritake’s fancy-line products shifted to embrace Art Deco.
Steering the company in the direction of Western tastes was an Englishman named Cyril Leigh. He promoted both floral and geometric designs in the Art Deco style. He pushed his colleagues to read publications such as Vanity Fair and Vogue, and to study the work of illustrators such as Erté and Homer Conant.
In particular, Noritake designers would borrow liberally from Conant, copying details from his prints of the 1924 Broadway musical Madame Pompadour for their hand-painted plates and plaques. Other classic Noritake imagery depicted nostalgic scenes of quiet ponds or solitary farmhouses in rural settings.
As Noritake expanded its export of dinnerware and fancy pieces, it created a cherry-blossom backstamp for ceramics shipped to the United States; the backstamp, which included the words "Made In Japan," was used from 1921 through 1941. A second backstamp, previously called Komaru and now known as Maruki, featured a symbol that resembled a six-legged spider and was used on pieces shipped to the United Kingdom. A third backstamp from 1914 to 1940 had an "M" set within a wreath; these were stamped on pieces imported by Morimura of New York.
Noritake’s popularity in 1920s America coincided with the acceptance of cigarette smoking by women. The company responded to this opportunity by creating whimsical ashtrays, cigarette boxes, and humidors, many in the shape of women with bone-white skin, often holding or puffing a cigarette. Sometimes the women depicted in Noritake pieces were dressed as harlequins; other times they resembled flappers in iridescent gold dresses.
Other ashtrays with a decidedly feminine look were those with figurals of cats, dogs, and birds perched on their edges. And since cigarettes and cards were joined at the hip during this period, many Noritake tobacco pieces were decorated with hearts, spades, diamonds, and clubs, each of which would have a stylish woman’s face at its center.
Two of the most collectible types of Noritake from the 1920s are the so-called Gemini and Sisters bowls. The Sisters consisted of figurals of identical twins on either side of a bowl, whose interior was often decorated with flowers or butterflies. The Geminis were similar, except the figurals faced away from each other and their arms were bent back to create a handle for the bowl. Other bowls had one to four handles in shapes that ranged from wicker baskets to serving platters—windmills at sunset, birds in flight, and fountains in courtyards were typical of the company’s imagery.
For the dining table, Noritake produced honey pots in the shapes of gaily colored beehives, complete with gold-glazed bee figurals buzzing about their outside surfaces. Sugar-and-creamer sets were quite common, as were salt-and-pepper shakers, many of which were shaped like women’s heads or painted in styles that suggested Pennsylvania Dutch influences.
In the bedroom, Noritake fans could purchase "dresser dolls," which resembled the female-shaped cigarette containers but were designed for powder puffs. Hatpin holders, perfume bottles, and trinket trays in rich, lustrous glazes were also produced. The "lemon plates," which sport a single black or golden loop handle, are great for beginning Noritake collectors because they are so plentiful, with the exception of plates decorated with a woman fanning herself. The lemon plates were designed to hold lemons for afternoon tea, so naturally tea services were also manufactured.
Finally, Noritake produced a wide range of vases and containers for plants—from low, square or round vessels for ferns to ornate and even garish flower frogs. Some vases resembled tree trunks, albeit ones with iridescent bronze surfaces; others used traditional Greek shapes as canvases for floral motifs, birds, and the ever-present farmhouses and windmills. Particularly arresting are the vases whose mouths have been bent back so they resemble a pitcher plant, as well as the various styles of fans vases and sconces, which are known as wall pockets among collectors of vintage and antique Noritake.
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